Writer-director Dan Gilroy’s Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a film whose protagonist and plot are out of sync. Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington) is an over-the-hill activist lawyer who goes through what can best be described as a midlife crisis after the death of his mentor and boss. Having spent his life working for peanuts defending the poor, Israel suddenly ends up working for the high-end law firm of his mentor’s former student, George Pierce (Colin Farrell). The new gig, along with a financial windfall that eventually sets what little there is of the film’s plot into motion, allows Israel to live luxuriously for the first time in his life. This reversal of fortune causes the man to see himself as a sellout, and allows Washington to indulge in all sorts of nervous ticks and goofy eccentricities that are utterly extraneous to his character.
Gilroy’s screenplay undermines his character study of a man selling his soul for material comforts by failing to convincingly blend it together with the elements of a legal thriller. Not only is Pierce far from the slick, heartless shyster that Israel sees him as, but the latter’s new job actually allows him to continue standing up for the poor. In fact, it even enables him to do so in a more effective way than ever before. And what leads to Israel’s downfall is a private decision that has nothing to do with his new position; he could have just as easily made the same choice at his previous job. Throughout the film, it’s almost like Washington and Gilroy have two completely opposing and irreconcilable visions of who Israel is supposed to be.
The red flags are there from the opening scenes, where we’re told that Israel is a “savant,” which seems to be a gentler way of saying that he’s on the autism spectrum. (This is somewhat confirmed when Israel is later shown avoiding cracks in the pavement and insulting just about everyone he meets, a la Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets.) The film apparently wants viewers to take Israel’s antisocial behavior as a mark of authenticity, but his actions come off instead as little more than trademarks of a run-of-the-mill social disorder that in and of itself isn’t indicative of any kind of moral depth. And while Israel does spend considerable time preaching his vision of political activism, it never becomes entirely clear what this vision actually consists of.
This is because Israel speaks in a kind of grandiloquent, moralizing legalese that could almost be a parody of better legal dramas if his words were either funny or witty. Instead, they’re mostly just incoherent and nonsensical, the wild utterings of a man completely disinterested in meaningfully communicating with his interlocutors. Similarly, Gilroy seems equally uninterested in conveying Roman J. Israel, Esq.’s purpose to his audience, hiding whatever larger political or philosophical points he wants to make behind Israel’s meaningless pseudo-philosophical jargon.
Gilroy’s Nightcrawler made great use of its Los Angeles setting to indict the thirst for violence cultivated by American TV journalism. One of the few successful moments in this film makes similarly thoughtful use of its own L.A. setting. The first thing Israel does with his newfound financial freedom is go on a staycation in Santa Monica, and this montage works as both a paean to L.A. as a city where dreams come true and a sendup of the illusory nature of those dreams. Another effective scene involves Israel, a veteran political activist grown out of touch with the scene, unwittingly arguing with a young woman about intersectionality without fully understanding the nature of their disagreement. Here, Roman J. Israel, Esq. successfully conveys the cannibalizing tendencies in contemporary social justice discourse, where identity politics often end up canceling each other out in the fight for larger socioeconomic goals. Unfortunately, this interesting thread is immediately dropped so as to return Israel to the center of a gratuitous, underdeveloped crime-thriller storyline, which ultimately smothers what could have been a promising character study beneath lazy genre machinations.