Review by: Vitali Gueron
Denzel Washington is at the top of his game in the new movie Roman J. Israel, Esq. from writer/director Dan Gilroy. Having seen and been impressed by Gilroy’s 2014 debut film Nightcrawler (with Jake Gyllenhaal), I was curious what the director had in store for us.
This film starts out slow, with Roman (Washington)’s firm in crisis as his law partner dies after suffering a heart attack. Roman’s left picking up the pieces and tying up loose ends in court – something he had not previously done before as he was the behind-the-scenes attorney at the small firm. His (what should have been) normally routine court appearances are a disaster; his tendency to blurt out what he perceives as the truth gets him held in contempt by a less-than-understanding and impatient judge. Without a job and out of luck, Roman (sporting his trademark ‘70s Afro hairstyle) walks the streets of Los Angeles, lugging around a huge briefcase filled with his lifelong passion project. What we eventually learn is that that he hopes to file a brief to bring about a class action lawsuit that will change the justice system for African American sentencing and those already incarcerated.
Roman interviews at a nonprofit run by Maya (played by Carmen Ejogo), but instead of finding a job, he gains an ally in Maya. She is not in the same mindset as her younger staff at the nonprofit are – that Roman is like something from another time that is outdated and out of the current mainstream. Maya believes that Roman should be respected and listed to. They end up developing a personal connection and she calls him to ask him out on a date, even though the talk he gave to some young students at her nonprofit doesn’t go very well.
Roman finds a job at George (Colin Farrell)’s firm, where George acts more like a legal shark, putting profits ahead of people. Roman does gain some valuable mentorship from George, who sees Roman’s scholarly ability to memorize a library of law books as an asset. Surrounded by wealth and unethical behavior, Roman chooses to claim a reward for $100,000 with the knowledge he acquires from taking on a case of a gang member who’s accused of murdering an Armenian store clerk. Once Roman gets his hands on the cash, he suddenly starts living large – taking a day off to get bacon maple-glazed doughnuts by the beach (something he always talked about doing but never had the time), purchasing pricey business suits and getting a modern hairdo, among other things. He takes Maya out on a fancy date and shows off his new suit and hairstyle. Maya shares with Roman some her life struggles with idealism and the reality of life, but Roman seems to lack compassion, even though he actually does feel it, he is really preoccupied with other things. The date ends on a high note as we see that they still have a strong connection.
The movie takes more of a predictable turn as Roman ends up paying the price for his unethical behavior and becomes a sort-of martyr for his cause. His real undoing comes about when he quips “I’m tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful.” The Roman we met in the begging on the movie would have never said that. Gilroy wraps the movie up neatly, with George doing what Roman wasn’t able to do – filing Roman’s brief in court — and Maya being inspired to mentor her students with Roman’s kind of activism and resistance. This ending in no way detracts from Denzel Washington’s brilliant performance, playing a man who is living with a mild-yet-obviously-present case of autism.
Washington brings his best effort to deliver an outstanding performance — one for which he may soon end up being rewarded for — in a movie that is headed for a predictable and unoriginal ending. As Roman tells us early on in the movie, the “Esquire” in his name means he is “above gentleman but below knight.” Similarly, Gilroy’s movie Roman J. Israel, Esq. is above average but below the greatness that we associate with Denzel’s most recent movies (i.e. Fences, Flight).
Have you seen ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’? Well, what did you think?