One of the things that resonated so much about Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” was how great movies about people are. Films through which audiences get to know a character and are more interested in the internal conflicts of day-to-day life than merely injecting a movie with melodrama for dramatic effect. “Lady Bird” was great because it was a very earnest look at the lives of some interesting characters. Which boy she ended up with or who she took the prom wasn’t the point. There wasn’t a traditional climax or escalating build towards a forced conclusion. It just sort of meandered through the lives of some well-developed characters. “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is a movie with similar storytelling goals but doesn’t quite achieve the same level of success.
Our title character, Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington), is a principled man in an unprincipled profession. As a defense attorney, he has spent most of his career working on cases cast off from other higher profile firms. Israel’s partner is the patron saint of legal lost causes. Roman isn’t a lawyer in the traditional sense. He does the research and uses his savant-like abilities to put together defenses for his partner to take into court and litigate. Unfortunately his partner has a massive heart-attack, leaving Roman without a job or anything to show for decades of hard work.
As Roman faces this existential crisis, he is approached by a former protege of his partner, George (Colin Farrell), who has been tasked with shutting down the remnants of Roman’s practice and tidily wrapping up the institution he had helped build. As an act of Mercy, George hires Roman on at his high-price super-bourgeois law film. This creates a number of frictional scenarios for Roman, whose intelligence and social awkwardness quickly makes him a liability. In a matter of days, he makes a series of poor decisions that alienate him from his coworkers and leads to tragic consequences for a client. At his core, Roman believes himself to be a righteous man who fights for the disenfranchised. His moral righteousness is constantly exposed as he tries to navigate through the modern legal system.
Roman’s crisis continues to bring him nothing but misery, until finally he decides to cash in and become the kind of person that starts looking out for himself. He parlays some privileged information into a large cash reward and pulls himself out of his rut and into a shopping spree. He knuckles down and tries to become a team player. His attempts to smooth out some of his rougher edges are admirable. For the first time, Roman is making himself a priority instead of his principles. But how long can it last?
Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”) has created a very conflicted, interesting character in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” However, the movie doesn’t do this character any favors. He’s dragged through a gauntlet of terrible events for the first half of the film. It seems fairly obvious, Roman’s life needs recalibrating; but after he jettisons a healthy portion of self-righteousness in favor of a little selfishness it feels like only a matter of time before he reverses that decision. There was part of me that was happy for Roman when he decided to start doing some things for himself. That’s a testament to how well Denzel Washington did creating this character. Roman is more than a collection of neurosis and embattled personality traits. He’s a guy who believes in a righteous cause, wearing it like an albatross around his neck. But it also makes him difficult and judgemental. I liked seeing a guy who has given everything to a cause become disenfranchised. It feel extremely relevant in this current cultural climate.
Eventually Roman has his moment of epiphany and course corrects. Roman’s journey is a little too predictable and it hurts the overall story. Still, Denzel Washington makes this movie worth watching. The guy is just that damn good. I liked Roman J. Israel, Esq. the character a lot more than I liked “Roman J. Israel, Esq” the movie.