The film Roman J. Israel, Esq. opens with the titular character (Denzel Washington) typing up a court transcript in which he is making himself both the prosecutor and the defendant, and apparently also the attorneys, the judge, the jury, and everyone else involved with his imaginary case. It’s an opening that does grab your attention. Who is Roman J. Israel? What did he do that would make him feel he needs to be put on trial? What sort of person would go to all the trouble of actually typing out an entire false trial in judgment of himself? This fantasy trial transcript never goes past the point of declaring the plaintiff and defendant at any point in the film, however, and so this transcript becomes an allegory for the entire film. It’s an interesting premise that is ruined by the fact that it never explores any of its ideas past the introductory concept and even then it doesn’t seem to understand much about people, law, nor storytelling.
First and foremost of the things to talk about in this film is the central character Roman J. Israel, Esq. himself. After the short introduction is finished, we flashback a short period in time to find that Roman starts the movie a law savant working in a very small criminal defense law firm in which he does all the behind the scenes work while his partner appears in court and performs all the other duties which involve contact and conversation with people. The savant angle of Roman’s character is the focal point of the film as we a watch person who has entire volumes of legal decisions and case law memorized down to specific subsection numbers but understands next to nothing of the arts of politics and diplomacy which are also so essential in the legal profession. Yet, we never learn what makes him this way. Is it a form of high functioning autism? Is it a form of OCD? A combination of factors? Is it just the way he was raised? We never learn any of these answers and they could very well have a strong influence on how the audience perceives him and his actions in the film.
It should also affect Washington’s portrayal of the role. You can tell that this film is more than just a paycheck in the passion he brings to the role. This is Denzel at his most magnetic and intense. You can tell that he loves this character, and wants to do everything he can to make us love and understand him, as well. This is a case, though, of the devil being in the details. If he’s playing an autistic savant, then there are far too many cases of suave, smooth Denzel making its way to the forefront. If he’s playing OCD, we never see any of the habits or tics which would define such a person. Even in the things we know for sure about the character he seems to miss details, making for a character we really want to like and appreciate, but can’t due to a lack of understanding who he is and his motivations from inconsistencies.
These inconsistencies are not solely the fault of Washington, though, the script and direction from Dan Gilroy not only do him no favors but are actually the real source of the majority of this film’s woes. It’s a script that doesn’t know what kind of film it wants to be. It’s sort of a character piece, sort of a legal drama, sort of a crime drama, sort of an activist statement, but it never manages to commit to any one plot nor theme so we’re ultimately left with a film full of half-realized plots and thoughts. These problems extend into every element of the film, from Roman himself to every supporting character and subplot. Which is too bad, because like Denzel you can tell that Gilroy is passionate about this subject matter, but his passion overrode his common sense and objectivity it seems as he wasn’t able to recognize his film for the inconsistent mess it is.
Putting the plot and characters aside, though, the technical elements of Roman J. Israel, Esq. are well handled. The camerawork adds a lot to the tone of the film, showing us Los Angeles through the eyes of Roman himself and how his view of the city and himself change as he makes his own major life changes throughout the film. The art direction and costumes also add an impressive amount to the atmosphere with the choices of costume in particular almost doing more to let us understand these characters than the writing and the acting do (and, the film seems to know this on some level with the amount of time spent commenting on what Roman is wearing). It’s a movie that knows when to be pretty and when to be ugly, and obviously loves Los Angeles for its flaws just as much as its glory.
The film’s fatal flaw, though, even worse than its handling of its characters and plot is its handling of its themes. It’s a movie that seems to want to be an even-handed film showing that people have layers and that an evil act does not make an evil person and vice versa or perhaps that being successful does not make one unethical or perhaps its meant to be a simpler don’t judge a book by its cover style of message. Due to the fact that its characterizations are so messy, though, I don’t know. Compare Roman J. Esquire to a film like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri or Lady Bird (review forthcoming) and you will the difference between characters and story which are complex and realistic and those which are merely inconsistent and not well thought out.
Final verdict: Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a mess of a passion project. It’s a movie that I really want to like because you can tell that the people behind it really believed in what they were doing. That very belief, however, seemed to blind them to the reality which is that this movie was trying to do so much that it couldn’t accomplish much of it effectively. As a visual testament to the city of Los Angeles and to the maxim of clothes making the man the movie hits, but aside from that, it spins its wheels never letting us really understand who these people are nor what they are trying to say.