Denzel Washington Brings Unusual "Roman J. Israel, Esq." To Life

Written and directed by Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”) with the specificity of non-fiction, Los Angeles-set legal drama “Roman J. Israel, Esquire” makes predictably mammoth use of two-time Oscar-winner Denzel Washington. Freed from the theatricalities of 2016’s “Fences,” the 62-year-old actor tears into the opportunity to build a character from the ground up: Roman J. Israel, a pudgy, eccentric lawyer devoted to fighting, thanklessly, for social justice in a system that has less use for him than ever.

Fated to a life as underappreciated as its title character, the film is an unusual, intermittently fascinating web of sociopolitical commentary and thrills carried painlessly by one of the great baby boomer thespians. It asks lots of important questions about the prison-industrial complex and knowingly answers none of them, justifiably content in the asking.

Thankless indeed.

Twelve minutes shorter than the version that received a tepid reception at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, Gilroy’s film begins noisily. Roman is typing furiously into a word processor, typing and then shouting at himself, suggesting enormous professional failings that we won’t come to know for another hour. Then Gilroy retreats three weeks, diving headlong into the life of a refreshingly, sometimes painfully multi-dimensional man.

Roman toils at a small law firm where his partner has just suffered a heart attack. The prognosis is bad for man and practice both. The firm is out of money, soon to be taken over by an appointed attorney named George Pierce (Colin Farrell). Pierce is slick, calculated, and immediately at odds with Israel’s still burning fire for civil rights. Roman is barely making ends meet as it is. An impasse for his firm means the bony beckoning finger of employment, only compounding his dreary home life.

His impressive vinyl collection – Funkadelic, Marvin Gaye – which might feature as a crown jewel for most bachelors, only functions to drown out the illegal nighttime construction adjacent to his apartment complex. The doldrums of his days are drowned out by an old iPod, providing his grim bus commute with a necessary shot of life. But life always interrupts the music. Roman’s best case scenario is life as a pariah in Pierce’s shiny, antiseptic office.

When our protagonist goes on to make a rash decision regarding a client, the film is reshaped into a morality play, giving Washington the chance to play a character bathing and then drowning in cash like a suicidal Scrooge McDuck. This is where the pic earns its stripes, becoming more than puffy drama, ebbing and flowing in ways wonderful and strange. Coincidence plays too large a part and a subplot involving an activist named Maya (Carmen Ejogo) founders, but Washington brings enough of it to life that the whole becomes impossible to write off.

Sometimes interesting is better than good, and in the case of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” interesting proves good enough. It is sure to delight Washington diehards and a good bet to appease others who find themselves spending two hours with a certain pudgy, eccentric lawyer.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: November 17, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Dan Gilroy
Screenwriter: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Amanda Warren, Hugo Armstrong
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for language and some violence)