Harlan Jacobson Reviews "Roman J. Israel, Esq."

Nov 17, 2017

Denzel Washington stars in "Roman J. Israel"
Credit Harlan Jacobson for WBGO

At 58, Dan Gilroy has mostly been a screenwriter noted for Two for the Money in 2005 with his wife Rene Russo caught up in a gambling thriller with Al Pacino and Matthew McConaughey, the Bourne Legacy in 2012 directed by his brother Tony Gilroy—that’s the one where Jeremy Renner stepped in for Matt Damon.

And two years ago, the influential but mostly unseen Nightcrawler, which Dan Gilroy wrote and directed, with Jake Gyllenhaal as a creepy guy with a video cam making the scene at the birth of cable news in LA. Gilroy returns with a new film, with a big actor trying to squeeze himself into a character part.

In the case of Roman J. Israel, Denzel H. Washington, Jr. of Mt. Vernon, NY and more recently LaLa Land, takes on the character of a backroom law books guy in a two-person defense attorney firm suddenly cut loose from his moorings. The showboat partner in the firm has a heart attack and dies offscreen.

Denzel squeezes down to play this title character, the research lawyer, done up by Wardrobe and Makeup here with what looks like the same ill-fitting clothes and big thick glasses Jerry Lewis wore in the Nutty Professor, minus the teeth.

Roman J. Israel, Esquire, as he likes to call himself, is very formal, pointedly bookish beneath an Afro, which in Roman J. Israel’s case is not the return of the Afro as the contemporary fashion statement you see now championed by Dante De Blasio but a holdover Afro from 40 years earlier when he was a young community action lawyer.

Circumstances pull the books guy out of the batcave where all the books are kept and on to the front lines where his incapacitated partner used to cut all the deals with the DA’s prosecuting seemingly the entirety of the young black male population of America. We’re expecting a superhero. But Roman J. Israel is a kind of legal idiot savant, about three steps above Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. When Roman J. Israel gets on the phone with an assistant district attorney to massage his first plea deal, he gets his Afro clipped but good.

That one busted plea deal illustrates the reasons for a class-action lawsuit against the discriminatory system of plea bargains that Israel Esquire has been working up for decades but which his backroom mentality hasn’t let him bring forward. It’s the nerd lawyer equivalent of the novel everyone you know has in a file at home. He has no car in LA, takes the bus, on which he broods and disappears into headphones that look like they’re pulling in little lightning lines of jazz into stacks of flapjacks on his ears. Maybe he bought them from Bayard Rustin, his hero. Roman J. Israel is neat but ridiculous, a calamity who has memorized the entire California legal code, a law firm joke and a juris doctor who believes everyone gets a vigorous defense.

The thing about Denzel is that he’s a movie star in the old-school sense: He’s right there as Malcolm X, or as Whip Whitaker, an airline pilot in Flight, flying a 747 upside down on coke--or because of coke—to a miracle landing. He’s there as a renegade narcotics detective in Training Day, for which he snagged an Oscar, overdue perhaps from his turn as Hurricane Carter, for which he did not. He keeps trying this time every year. But what makes Denzel old school is that his genetic footprint remains the same. I loved him last year in his film of August Wilson’s Fences. Never mind its vices—plot turns that were literally phoned in by the playwright from stage right--its virtues were Denzel as Troy Maxson, the lion of the Hill District in black Pittsburgh, upended by the explosive Viola Davis as his wife, Rose.

So, when Denzel comes to the screen now as a geek lawyer, you can’t stop processing the lack of a superman cape underneath the plaid sportcoat, navy sweater vest and striped bow tie, tenting the zhlubby, spread frame of a middle-aged possum of a lawyer, squinting at the headlights that fall on him. Whoops, it’s show time on an LA legal freeway, and you’re it, Israel. Broke, a monk by inclination, the sheepish lawyer does what’s human, not superhuman, and scampers off, stopping to pick up an easy payday on the way to a good suite on a great beach.

It’s a given in films like this, which got its start as a gala screening at the recent Toronto Film Festival, that a character with spine can’t separate himself from his nature for too long. The film bumps along between unreal plot points and standard characters: Colin Farrell as a corporate lawyer named Pierce—Dan Gilroy’s writing is always to the point but at times a bit over-sharp—called on by conscience to do the right thing; Carmen Ejogo as Maya, the good girl public interest lawyer who’s 20 years younger than Israel and could’ve been a super model if she weren’t so damn committed. What’s refreshing about the film is how it raises and then mercifully sidesteps as a cliché the collision between money and principles. Been there, done that, no reason to file that brief again.

The film is named for a small, eccentric character holding his big vision at the end like a flashlight aimed at the moon. Maybe something will come of it. Maybe not. But looks like he’s gotten the girl, though he’d be the last to find out. We just don’t have to stay up nights now worrying about him.

Click above to hear Harlan's complete review.