The second directorial effort from Dan Gilroy (following his 2014 film Nightcrawler), Roman J. Israel, Esq. is another drama set in Los Angeles starring a peculiar character with his own set of quirks and ideals. Whereas Nightcrawler explored the world of sensationalized television news, this movie attempts to take a hard look at the California legal system, being compared to the Paul Newman vehicle The Verdict when it was first in development. With Denzel Washington onboard as the lead, the hope was Gilroy’s latest could join the fray in the awards race, but that isn’t the case. Roman J. Israel, Esq. features another standout performance by Washington, but the story around him is mundane and fails to leave an impression.
Roman J. Israel (Washington) is a criminal defense attorney who has spent the last 40 years working at a small, two-person law firm, dedicating himself to fighting for his clients’ civil rights. One day, his partner suffers a heart attack and falls into a permanent vegetative state, which upends Roman’s life and career. Unable to stay afloat, the firm brings in George Pierce (Colin Ferrell) to help with the shut down process, leaving Roman out of a job. He attempts to find new work for himself, including offering his services to a civil rights group led by Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo).
Stuck in a dire financial situation, Roman reluctantly accepts a position at George’s larger firm, the institution of which can at times clash with his idea of what a lawyer should be. As Roman embarks on a new chapter of his career, he will have to make some difficult decisions that potentially could have serious, longterm ramifications.
The film’s biggest issues lie with the script, which was written by Gilroy. It reads as a step down from his exemplary work on Nightcrawler, since the main narrative comes across as scattered, rather than taut and focused. As the plot progresses, it has difficulty finding proper footing, which makes it hard to get truly invested in its events and hurts the pacing. Some of this might stem from the fact Gilroy trimmed the theatrical version down from what was shown on the festival circuit, as at times it feels like significant scenes that inform the characters and story are missing. Though Roman J. Israel, Esq. runs slightly more than two hours, it can drag occasionally, especially in the middle section where it tries to determine what it wants to be. It toys with some neat concepts, but never fleshes them out.
What elevates the picture is Washington’s performance, which is unsurprisingly great. This turn is something a little different for the Oscar-winner, as Roman is portrayed as a savant with a knack for knowing the criminal code. The character itself runs the risk of becoming a caricature (see: the outlandish costumes and hairstyle), but Washington grounds it in a manner that makes Roman feel genuine and authentic. He is captivating in the role, even when some may question Roman’s actions. Any shortcomings present in the titular lawyer are more a product of the writing than Washington, who is gamely up for the task of carrying the entire movie on his shoulders with his screen presence and natural charisma.
Unfortunately, his co-stars aren’t so lucky. Farrell and Ejogo are essentially the extent of the primary supporting cast (save for a few bit players here and there), and their parts come across as underwritten. Both actors make the most of the material they have to work with, but there’s very little for them to bite into. This negatively affects not just their respective characterizations, but also the relationships they form with Roman, as neither feels fully developed. The arcs don’t pay off in a satisfying manner, which diminishes the story’s ultimate effectiveness. Again, this is more the fault of Gilroy than Farrell or Ejogo, who play off Washington nicely. If these secondary roles were beefed up a bit, the film could have been something very interesting.
While his writing isn’t up to par this time around, Gilroy does maintain an eye for sharp visuals, once again bringing the City of Angels to life through his own unique lens. Thanks to collaborators like cinematographer Robert Elswit and production designer Kevin Kavanaugh, Gilroy gives Roman J. Israel, Esq. its own distinct style that blends retro and modern aesthetics. This is an extension of one of the film’s primary themes: that Roman is a man trapped in the past, unable (or unwilling) to adapt and advance his career. There are obvious, yet potent, visual contrasts in regards to wardrobe and locations (Roman’s apartment vs. George’s office) that hammer these ideas home, making the film a treat to look at – even if it isn’t the most engaging at times.
In the end, Roman J. Israel, Esq. will join the growing list of terrific Denzel Washington performances, but falls short of reaching the greatness some of the actor’s previous films have reached. With a tighter screenplay and a more compelling through-line to follow, the movie might have been able to make some noise during Oscars season, though as it stands, cinephiles do not need to rush out to the theater to see it so they can keep up with the contenders. Fans of Washington will find some enjoyment out of the star lending his talents to a fascinating character, but beyond that, there isn’t much to recommend.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It runs 129 minutes and is rated PG-13 for language and some violence.
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