MOVIE REVIEW: Roman J. Israel, Esq.

(Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment via

(Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment via

Special Presentation selection of the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival


Family, friends, coffee, a dog’s love, your favorite blue jeans, J.D. Power-award winning cars, ice cream, a warm blanket, duct tape, God, and Denzel Washington.  That’s the absolute list of the most dependable and reliable things in this world.  The soon-to-be 63-year-old two-time Academy Award winner never gives a bad performance and employs a focus on each role that is second to none.  The respect and presence Denzel commands is unparalleled.  Best of all, Washington’s range is still growing in his fifth decade as a performer.  Cloaked inside a frumpy legal savant, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is another exemplary piece of evidence to this man’s range, focus, and presence.

LESSON #1: THE DEFINITION OF “ESQUIRE”-- Often abbreviated as it is here, the term “esquire” was originally a rank of distinction above a gentleman and below a knight in England.  It was adopted in the legal circles as a form of address for attorneys.  With grounded principles, Roman suits the legal and traditional versions of the title.  The film opens with Israel narrating and drafting a rapidly written brief in Times New Roman font against himself to be disbarred on the grounds of hypocrisy, circumstances that will all come to light over the course of the next two hours.  

Washington’s titular lawyer is the diligent background player to his more lauded superior and partner.  Sporting thick glasses and ever-present headphones nestled in an untamed afro, Roman prefers the 36 years of rigor and research on the paperwork side of the job, buried in legal tomes, a CRT computer monitor, and Post-It notes far away from the self-described “butchery” of the courtroom.  A throwback relic and a hermetic creature of habit, the man whose blunt civil justice stances, spun from following the likes of Bayard Rustin as a younger man, are as outdated as his wardrobe for a modern Los Angeles.  

When his lead attorney partner is debilitated by a severe heart attack, Roman is thrust from the typewriter to the lectern where his impatient verbal vigor gets the best of him.  He attempts to maintain the active caseload until his small-time firm is absorbed by one of his partner’s former proteges, the slick George Pierce, played by Colin Farrell.  Underneath the big money lifestyle, George’s polished shark still maintains a glimmer of the idealism he once learned, a trait immediately noticed by Roman.  Our protagonist can evolve his slow-paced flip phone self to the smartphone world working for Pierce’s firm or entertain the notion of becoming more involved in the civil activist arena of his personal passion, a movement lead and embodied by a newfound community connection named Maya (Carmen Ejogo).

Struggling with this turning point, Israel finds himself in quite the Faustian pickle triggering fear, guilt, and paranoia, circling us back to the opening narration on hypocrisy.  When this threat of retribution arrives in the last third of the film, Roman J. Israel, Esq. veers substantially into a different film than where it started.  Nightcrawler writer-director Dan Gilroy and Washington recut the film after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, trimming fourteen minutes, rearranging scenes, and shifting points of musical emphasis.  The tinkering shows, resulting in an unconventional legal drama rife with unbalanced scales of tone rather than justice.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s regular cinematographer Robert Elswit intimately observes the backs of people going in their own directions and bends the camera to look people in the eye even when the characters can’t or won’t.  Establishing the Israel character with a musical taste of ethnic jazz and soulful funk, the film strolls with an easy pace of an engaging character study.  When Roman J. Israel, Esq. decides to become a simmering thriller the musical tone smears.  Composer James Newton Howard’s mismatched score is all over the place, swinging from a dramatic choral voice layer to his own attempts at a hip vibe.  The narrative does the same it’s enough to take you out of the film.

The stabilizing constant underneath the imbalance is Washington.  The actor downshifts his usual broiling ferocity into responsive indignation tempered by the quirks and flaws of the Israel character.  Ever a fighter at heart, Washington infuses zingers of truth as only he can.  His performance is further evidence that Washington can find equal nuance in the quiet as well as the chaotic.  Try as they may, Ferrell and Ejogo are merely sounding boards opposite him.

A frequent hitch for a Denzel Washington movie is whether the film’s quality can match that of the lead actor.  When they do, the results of greatness are staggering.  When they don’t, the best we can cling to is the treasured living legend’s committed performance.  Unfortunately, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is more of the latter.

LESSON #2: ALTRUISM VERSUS MATERIALISM-- The moral dilemma pushing Roman to the brink is one that pits cause against ambition.  Roman’s career upheaval has flustered his comfort zone, making him susceptible to ego and delusion when opportunity strikes to cure desperation.  He knows better but wrestles with that challenge.