TIFF FILM REVIEW: Denzel Stumbles as Passionate Lawyer in Soulless ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.
Doctor Evil did not go to evil school to be called Mister, and Denzel Washington’s Roman J. did not go to law school so that you would omit the comma esq from the end of his name, thank you very much. It is with that and other facile supposed quirks that the titular character in the upcoming legal drama Roman J. Israel, Esq., which had its world premiere in Toronto last night, turns himself into a caricature of the more palatable eccentric justice warriors that came before him, and as a result renders the entire film a lackluster exercise in moral ambiguity.
Directed by Nighcrawler’s John Gilroy, the film begins when Roman’s lifelong law partner has a debilitating heart attack that necessitates a courtroom savvy lawyer take over the fledgling practice. Roman has a sharp legal mind and a keen intellect, but he does not have the suavity and grace required to carry himself in a courtroom with disinterested prosecutors and cynical judges. Rescue takes the shape of polished criminal defense attorney George, played with his debonair, no-nonsense persona by Colin Farrell. George puts the white in white shoe law firm, and he and his colleagues show little patience at first for Roman, what with his eccentric clothing, his lack of refinement, his overgrown afro, and his penchant for wearing old school headphones to accompany his Walkman.
But you are supposed to like Roman J., god help them, because he rails against “the system” and “the machine” of criminal justice. Denzel plays Roman J. with one part Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, one part his own Antwone Fisher. There is something beyond just unconventionality—Roman is clearly on the spectrum and is therefore both a (misunderstood) genius and a (maligned) social hero. Roman is supposed to be an activist, a warrior for the downtrodden, at least until he faces his own fork in the moral road, the choice of which has unexpected and devastating consequences for him.
The problem, one of the many problems, rather, is that none of the different, confused iterations of the character becomes convincing. The first Roman we see is the one who, oops, screws up his court appearances when he takes over from his dying partner, because he tried to do the right thing. Gavels bang and the word contempt is thrown around. The second Roman we see is the supposed social justice guy, though he does not really defend anyone particularly oppressed, he talks back to some female activists. Voices whisper across a prison partition glass, and words like “cause,” and “sister” are thrown around.
It is the stuff cinematic cliché wet dreams are made of, really, with each character delivering their lines with an air of unbelievable theatricality and Gilroy’s camera roaming and jarring from one vignette to the next, from one type of movie into another. We follow Roman closely, and we are intrigued when he makes a clearly questionable, even reprehensible choice that destroys what little is left of the supposed altruism and appeal of the character. But while Gilroy clearly aspires to be a student and a lover of Los Angeles—something he achieved quite marvelously in Nightcrawler—the Chinatown feeling he goes for with the denouement is everything but.
Denzel, of course, gives it his all. He actually plays a different character than the tough-talking, brow-beating older guy he has been defaulting to in recent years, including last year in Fences, although the script stubbornly refuses to let him go of the typecast and vaults him even into that modality in the latter half. He is nevertheless a meticulous actor and a delight to watch, and this may have been a passion project for him given the overall arch or aura of morality in the story, but the punch he may have hoped landed, did not.
Roman J. Israel, Esq., is an example of a movie with great ambitions but not great visions. There is something baked in there about not judging others, because we all make tough moral choices, and we all make even life-ruining mistakes. That lesson is all fine, well, and true, but this film is not the proper vehicle through which to learn it.