Usually a film’s title offers at least a clue as to what it’s about. Not so with “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” Even the ads show only the back of Denzel Washington’s head with a fuzzy Afro. That’s the first tipoff that writer-director Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”) may be more concerned with character than story.
Fortunately, as a civil rights attorney mired in the activism of the ’60s and ’70s, Washington’s performance as Israel is quirky and charming enough to almost pull it off. It’s not just the hair, dorky oversized glasses, gapped teeth, and rumpled clothes that makes Roman unlike the charismatic characters Washington usually plays. He’s also socially inept. A bit of a savant, he can cite chapter and verse of the legal code, but with people he’s not so good.
For the past 36 years, Roman has been locked in the back room of a downtown L.A. law firm as the legal eagle behind the pro-bono cases and good deeds of legendary civil rights bulldog William Henry Jackson. When his mentor dies suddenly, Israel is forced out of his cocoon, and his life slowly and painfully changes.
He’s so lost and out of touch that in one heated scene he addresses a grass roots organization and, in a show of old school courtesy, asks some young men to get up and give the women standing in the back their seats. The sisters indignantly respond that they don’t need to be rescued. Roman’s attempt to connect with a younger generation is a failure, and he storms out and back into his shell.
But even an idealist needs to pay his bills, and with no other options, he goes to work for attorney George Pierce (Colin Farrell), his polar opposite who was also schooled by Jackson but has gone off in pursuit of money instead of social justice. It’s not a good fit, and Roman is soon the laughing stock of the firm, and worse. It’s not just the situation that’s awkward: Washington and Farrell also don’t seem to have found their comfort zone working together. They should feel like different people attracted to each other by something bigger in order to make the plot plausible, but instead they just seem to be in different movies with no real chemistry between them.
As he did in “Nightcrawler,” Gilroy stages much of the action on the seedy edges of downtown L.A., and ace cinematographer Robert Elswit (“Inherent Vice”) captures the atmosphere of a world just barely keeping it together. The film has a lived-in quality highlighted by Gilroy’s crisp ear for dialogue.
Once the plot kicks in, about halfway through, the film becomes more contrived to make its points. Things go downhill for Roman. After he’s mugged (in a well-staged and heartbreaking scene), he’s fed up trying to do the impossible for ungrateful people. Faced with a moral decision in a murder case, he goes against everything he’s believed in, with dire consequences.
Roman doesn’t lack for passion, but he is an unlikely warrior. So when he decides to make things right, it’s a stretch to see him become a man of action all of a sudden. He insists the “esq.” after his name raises him above a gentleman and just below a knight. Perhaps this is Gilroy’s way of working out his own idealism. It’s a nice thought even if it doesn’t entirely work dramatically.