When veteran screenwriter Dan Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy) made his directorial debut with 2014’s Nightcrawler, he aimed his camera at the seedier sections of Los Angeles that don’t often end up on the silver screen — the forgotten, hard-to-sweep corners of a metropolis that were stripped of their Tinseltown tinsel long ago. In a way, the same was true of the film’s protagonist, Jake Gyllenhaal’s amateur crime-scene videographer, Louis Bloom. He was one of the city’s easily overlooked, twitchy fringe types — the kind you’ve walked past thousands of times without giving a second thought (other than, perhaps, the sudden impulse to cross to the other side of the street). In Roman J. Israel, Esq., Gilroy’s second time around as a director, he ventures down that same untrammeled path, painting a portrait of a long-overlooked man in a long-underrepresented section of Los Angeles.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. doesn’t quite have the same frayed-wire electricity as Nightcrawler, but what it does have on its side is Denzel Washington — a squalling, one-of-a-kind screen presence whose mere presence elevates just about any movie he’s in. That’s no small thing. Washington’s Roman is a former inner-city civil rights activist who is the silent, unseen partner in a small, two-person criminal-defense law firm in downtown L.A. With his grown-out, Don Cornelius Afro, ‘70s glasses frames, and ill-fitting blazer over a threadbare cardigan, Roman is a man out of time (his iPod is crammed with soul classics from the Nixon era). Roman is the kind of luddite relic who favors index cards to computer spreadsheets, payphones to cellphones, and actually walks to get around in the pedestrian-unfriendly city. He’s a brilliant, encyclopedic legal mind who seems to be just shy of the autism spectrum, unable to play well with others. He’s a blunt instrument and an odd duck. Which is why he does the backroom paperwork while his partner, the face of the firm, is the one who appears in court. Roman is a walking contradiction. He can’t stomach the inequalities he sees in the legal system, but he proudly insists on adding the term “Esquire” to his name. When asked by a client what the honorific means, he replies, “It’s slightly above gentleman and below knight.”
When Roman’s partner suffers a heart attack and is left in a coma, the struggling firm is forced to shut down. For the first time in decades, this man of honor and routine faces uncertainty. Helping to liquidate the firm is one of his partner’s former students, George Pierce — a slick and shark-like high-priced corporate attorney who sees past Roman’s prickly veneer and recognizes the brilliant, steel-trap mind underneath. He gives Roman a job at his ritzy firm out of both pity and the potential of making a buck off of him. Colin Farrell, in a fine, understated performance, makes what could have easily been a one-dimensional character far more complex than he sounds on paper. You can see the flicker of idealism that burned in him before the BMWs and thousand-dollar suits came along.
Gilroy’s film begins as a story about the moral tension between these two men, but soon becomes one about the moral tension within Roman’s own soul. Will he sell out and play nice for a bit of material comfort, or will he sell out his fiery ideals? And Gilroy smartly allows his hero to stray into some murky ethical waters. Unfortunately, there are also too many other elements of the film that hew too closely to clichés, including a chaste friendship between Roman and a young non-profit activist (Selma’s Carmen Ejogo) grappling with her own conscience who sees this man a sort of role model. But Roman’s tired of making other people feel good about themselves. For the first time in his life, he wonders what’s in it for him?
The first two-thirds of Roman Israel are a gripping and original character study, thanks in large part to Washington’s authentic, showy-but-not-too-showy performance. But Gilroy loses his controlled grip in the final act, which veers into some overly melodramatic twists and too-convenient switchbacks. With his hunched gait, lack of people skills, and idealism built on quicksand, Washington makes you believe in Roman 100 percent. Unfortunately, the script lets him down a bit in the homestretch. B