If you’re weary of films whose inhabitants are rendered in monotone shades of good, bad or predictable, I recommend the multidimensional “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” Enter a world where some people have a lot of poor qualities behind the scenes, while others are less bedraggled than their superficial defects connote.
The film stars Denzel Washington in a transformative role as an ethical wallflower in the Los Angeles legal community who finds himself caught in a moral trap of his own devising. This is Washington back in the kind of straight-up serious roles he played in 2012’s “Flight” and 1993’s “Philadelphia.” But we have never seen him playing a character this multilayered with idealism and corruption, as well as vulnerability, both emotional and physical.
Roman is a lawyer who has barely entered a courtroom. He has spent the decades since passing the bar exam as the researcher for his senior partner in their two-man firm. But that attorney, a beloved mentor for many counsels committed to social justice, has been felled by a stroke.
The microscopic firm’s collapse leaves Roman as lonely as an orphaned puppy. Living alone in a modest apartment filled with memorabilia and music from the 1970s, he seems less nostalgic for the era’s fight-the-power romanticism than simply eccentric.
As Washington’s shuffling walk and worn, weary posture hint, Roman would not be a great mouthpiece in court. He has a tendency to stammer and hesitate, and a difficulty with social connections from a seeming autism spectrum disorder.
He also is remarkably intelligent, a human database of California case law, regulations and ordinances. That makes him a valuable addition to the upscale law firm run by George (Colin Farrell), a former student of Roman’s partner who hires him in what at first feels like an act of charity.
While George’s bespoke suits may imply “corporate bloodsucker,” it’s more complicated and contradictory than that. Roman uses his rare gifts to climb the ladder in his posh new firm. At the same time, he keeps his heart on his passion project: a mammoth appeal that could overturn unjust sentencing procedures.
To follow the path to that prize, the legal community requires Roman to reboot himself. And when he does, like Icarus, he flies too high. Having worked a lifetime for little recognition and scant money, he sets aside his ethical map and takes the low road. That sends him colliding with a jailed criminal whose outside men settle clashes not in court but on the streets.
There’s a surprising depth to the movie, beginning with its shared focus on the sleek side of Los Angeles and the grungy parts the visitors’ bureau would never want you to see. Writer/director Dan Gilroy (2014’s “Nightcrawler”) serves a smorgasbord of legal mystery, social drama, character portrait, unlikely romance, light comedy and tragedy.
It’s sprinkled with grace notes such as Roman’s old school Afro and thrift shop wardrobe, the growing personal conversations between Roman and George, and the curveball adjustments that come to a legal activist played by Carmen Ejogo. It even makes a point while getting a laugh about Roman’s unfulfilled craving for maple turkey bacon doughnuts.
The film is a stimulating sharp turn away from storytelling conventions and a challenge for viewers who prefer narrative pabulum to dense, savory, chewy material. But it’s well worth making the effort.