Roman J. Israel, Esq. wants to be a deep character study and an examination of the legal system in America, but the slow pace and scattered focus prevent it from achieving that goal. It is a film of contrasts; the main character is not particularly likable, but he holds high ideals regarding the harsh truth of American society and how it administers criminal justice, and the film gives him several well-written monologues to prove it. Roman is given the frustratingly stereotypical traits of someone who is on the autism spectrum, but the film never acknowledges those behaviors or allows the other characters to do so on a meaningful level. All too often films equate a disorder or illness with the person who has it, and unfortunately, that happens in this film.
Denzel Washington plays the title character Roman J. Israel, a man who has spent his life in the libraries of his law firm perfecting his knowledge of the legal system and writing federal briefs for his famous civil rights lawyer partner to use. When the partner suffers a heart attack and Roman is forced to go to court, we see how unprepared he is for this new role as he gets caught up in arguing police treatment of a client during a preliminary hearing and earns himself a hefty contempt fine. His partner’s family closes the business and after several days spent searching for a new position, Roman grudgingly accepts the offer of George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a lawyer with his own high-priced firm that was retained to take over the remaining cases of Israel’s old employer. Israel has difficulty adjusting to the stuffy new environment and earns enemies galore with his aggressive and thoughtless attitude, while simultaneously making all the wrong decisions with his first real clients.
The film spends the first forty-five minutes setting up Israel’s character as a man stuck in the past who cannot or will not adapt to modern society. As Israel is introduced to the world that exists beyond the barriers he’s built, he begins to despair of his life being anything but a long slog of guilty clients, ancient clothes, and a tiny apartment. When a client is implicated as an accomplice in the murder of a store clerk and it becomes clear that there is no easy out for him, he tells Israel the location of the shooter in hopes of getting a deal. When Israel takes the info to the district attorney, he isn’t pleased with her offer and ends up losing the option of a deal when he verbally retaliates. Roman sees a reward is being offered for information regarding the murderer of the store clerk and he decides to abandon his principles and anonymously provide the tip to collect the reward money. At first, it seems like everything will be wonderful, but Israel slowly realizes that he has only made everything worse.
Unsurprisingly Denzel Washington is the driving force behind the Roman J. Israel, Esq. and it’s unlikely that it would have reached its middling success without his involvement. He deftly portrays the character of Israel with an emotional depth that makes it easy to accept both the pointed political speeches and angry outbursts as genuine. The character he plays is limited and flat, but he manages to fill him out with a subtle skill that mostly covers the script’s failings. Unfortunately, none of the other actors are up to the task; Farrell’s George flips back and forth between macho grandstanding and humble student to Israel, and neither is particularly convincing. The third big player in the film is Israel’s vague love interest Maya (Carmen Ejogo), who runs a local social justice charity devoted to legal matters. She is enamored with Israel’s history as a civil rights lawyer, and while the romantic angle doesn’t come to fruition until much later, it’s obvious from the beginning. Unfortunately, Ejogo is not up to the task of transforming her character into anything but the star-struck admirer that the script calls for.
It’s truly unfortunate that Roman J. Israel, Esq. is not a better film because there is so much there to work with. The seeds of at least three different and much more interesting movies run through it. Instead of focusing on any one of those it spends too much time examining a character that does not have the depth to hold the viewer’s interest. Washington, Farrell, and Ejogo are all acting their hearts out, but only Washington has the skill to rise above the mediocre material and create a compelling character. The film seems to want to examine the costs of advocacy to those who spend their lives doing it, but even this point is lost when the film reaches its inevitable conclusion. Roman J. Israel, Esq. has great intentions, but it’s never able to deliver on its initial promise.