Denzel Washington is a great actor, but as varied as his performances can be, he doesn’t change his aspect very much. The talky, boastful energy and toothy smile, the defiant alertness — whether he’s playing Malcom X or Hurricane Carter, an alcoholic airline pilot or a righteous sanitation worker, at almost every Denzel Washington movie the components of his look and delivery fall into familiar patterns. (No shame there; that’s part of what makes him a star.) But in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” Washington rearranges the molecular metabolism of his personality. You recognize him, but it’s also as if you’ve never seen him before. No wonder you can’t stop staring.
Roman Israel — or as he likes to say it, in his obsessive and literal way, Roman J. Israel, Esq. — is a Los Angeles criminal attorney, somewhere in his early 60s, who has been working in the same law office for decades. It’s a practice devoted to defending the poor and the down and out, often on a pro bono basis. There are only two lawyers in the office: Roman and his long-time partner, who handles the court appearances while Roman takes care of the memoranda and other paperwork. It’s a system that functions for them, since Roman isn’t entirely presentable.
He’s a relic of the social-protest ’70s, when activism was about litigating justice, and he’s like a man who just stepped out of a time machine. He’s still got his fuzzy three-inch-tall Afro, he wears plastic aviator frames that look like they haven’t been replaced since 1974, and his outfit consists of what you might call a three-piece suit, except that each piece comes from a different suit (herringbone jacket, blue sweater vest, brown pants). When he speaks, the legal thoughts tumble out with winding, at times nearly stoned fluidity, a weirdly eloquent and coherent sort of word salad.
Roman talks at people as if he were talking to himself, and he never raises his voice, because he assumes that you’re hearing him. (He assumes that you’re inside his head.) He’s wired yet placid, like Cornel West on opium.
He’s also some kind of savant, probably in the Asperger range of the autism spectrum. He’s obsessive, repetitive, and lodged in his ways. He occupies an ancient apartment full of rows and rows of vinyl albums, images of Angela Davis and Marvin Gaye and Bayard Rustin, and shelves of peanut butter (the only food, apparently, that he eats). He doesn’t own a car, and walks around Los Angeles plugged into his headphones, toting the boxiest leather briefcase you ever saw. It contains the bound pages of a class-action lawsuit that he’s been assembling for years, with thousands of clients. The suit is designed to challenge the corrosive system of plea bargains — a rigged game in which prosecutors threaten defendants with impossibly harsh sentences, all to get them to agree to prison time (even if they’re innocent). It’s a way of short-circuiting the legal process.
Washington makes Roman an eerie and stirring presence, because instead of just playing the character as quirky/funny/eccentric, he suffuses him with a profound sense of the past. Everything about Roman is double-edged: He’s a laughable fashion clown…who’s too poor to buy clothes. He’s a pre-tech fussbudget who’s still living in a world of paper clips and index cards…but he’s also a brilliant, steel-trap mind who has the entire California legal code memorized. That briefcase of his looks like it might contain a schizophrenic diary…but his analysis of the plea-bargain system, as it has evolved, is spot-on: It’s a corruption of fairness. Roman is an antiquated idealist, cut off from reality at the same time that his passion for social justice roots him in reality.
Roman is a fantastic character, and Washington’s high-wire performance is one of his most daring and compelling. It could be the locomotive that drives this train — at the box office, and at awards time. Yet “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” as written and directed by Dan Gilroy (who made the Jake Gyllenhaal-as-tabloid-journalist fever dream “Nightcrawler”), is a pedestal for Washington that has many good scenes, yet never takes off to become a memorable entity of its own. It seems like an organic movie — a legal drama without a single courtroom battle — yet it’s also a concoction: “Rain Man” meets “The Verdict” meets the corporate heartlessness of the 21st century. For all its virtues, the film lacks a strong narrative spine.
When Roman’s law partner suffers a heart attack and lapses into a vegetative state, his family decides to dissolve the firm — a prospect that will leave a semi-functional fossil like Roman high and dry. But the partner’s old student, George (Colin Farrell), has agreed to oversee the dissolution process, and when he picks up on Roman’s encyclopedic abilities, he offers him a job at his own sleek L.A. firm. Roman could use the paycheck — without it, he’s facing destitution. Besides, who the hell else would hire this guy?
Farrell, in a brightly popping performance, plays George with the shark-lite attitude of a corporate lawyer who wants to help people without reducing his firm to a charity. That’s where Roman comes in: He’s a desperate idealist with the mind of a legal calculator. Or, at least, that’s the idea.
The way “Roman Israel, Esq.” is set up, the film should be building to a moral-legal confrontation that tests Roman and everyone around him. Instead, it’s content to be a character study. But the audience may not be so content. Roman is assigned to the case of a young man (Niles Fitch) accused of murder. (He’s innocent, but tagged along with a buddy when the buddy killed a convenience-store clerk.) During the process, Roman does something that seems, in movie terms, to be justified: He turns the identity of the killer over to the victim’s relatives, gathering a private reward of $100,000. Legally, it’s a dicey thing to do, but no one innocent has gotten hurt, and Roman uses the money to put himself through a transformation that feels good.
He buys real suits. He rents a fabulous apartment. He brushes back his hair. He scarfs honey-and-turkey-bacon donuts. He goes on a date with Maya (Carmen Ejogo), who runs a non-profit and, in her small way, is carrying on the dream of Roman’s formative era. The audience surveys all of this and approves, because Roman J. Israel, Esq. looks like a guy who could use a break.
But the reward money comes back to haunt him. And that seems, in the end, a little facile. The movie turns into a war of signifiers, an archetypal L.A. battle pitched between going-for-the-bucks and holding-on-to-your-values. We’ve seen that battle before, a few too many times, and “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” doesn’t play it out in a particularly satisfying way. It leaves us with a character you won’t soon forget, but you wish that the movie were as haunting as he is.