From the opening scene, you notice immediately that there is something off about Denzel Washington’s character. For the next 15 minutes, the feeling gets stronger. Roman J. Israel is, undoubtedly, an exceptionally smart lawyer but he lives in a world where social skills are irrelevant. It would take several more minutes for another character, George Pierce (played by Colin Farrell), to articulate what you may have already guessed. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is “some kind of a savant.” The film is just the right vehicle for an aging Denzel Washington, but for a story about lawyers, it is too much of a fairy tale and that makes it a little hard to swallow.
Roman Israel is an idealistic activist lawyer who has spent most (if not all) of his professional life as a (silent) partner in the civil rights law office of his mentor, William Jackson, who suffers a heart attack. The arrangement was that Jackson appeared in court while Roman did the pleadings, memoranda and other paper work. In short, his role did not require him to interact with too many people outside the walls of the office.
With Jackson incapacitated and likely to die, the law firm is handed over to George Pierce who, like Roman, was once a student of Jackson. Because the firm is heavily in debt, Pierce intends to close it down. He, however, offers to take on Roman in his own firm. Roman refuses because he considers Pierce to be a crook who sells out his clients in favor of money and a high winning ratio. Pierce tries to convince Roman to join him by explaining that he too was once full of ideals but the realities of life led him to a different path in his legal career.
Unable to find a job, Roman joins Pierce’s law firm. Naturally, it is a culture shock for him. And this is where the story gets screwed.
For some reason, Roman’s idealism rubs off on Pierce and he restructures the firm to be more client-friendly (a.k.a. less greedy for money). He even announces opening a pro bono division for people who can’t afford the high legal fees that the firm exacts from regular clients. All good for a feel-good movie but I was sure at that point if that was what Roman J. Israel, Esq. was. I’m a lawyer and I’ve seen countless times that once the system has eaten a lawyer and he sets aside all the lofty ideals of his law school days, there is no turning back.
Colin Farrell does a wonderful job with his George Pierce. He looks, acts and talks the way financially most successful lawyers do (pardon the stereotyping but lawyers are almost always too concerned with their appearance and mannerisms to project a certain stature and sophistication that seem attractive to wealthy potential clients). The occasional compassion, as with the hiring of Roman for whom he was not responsible at all, is understandable and even believable. But to re-focus the direction of his entire firm and, much later, to take on Roman’s lifelong ambition of filing a class suit to question the morality and legality of the plea-bargaining system is just too much. TOO MUCH.
No, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is not a feel-good movie. Essentially, it is both a character study and a slow-burn thriller. Here’s a savant who survives and, to some extent, succeeds in the dog-eat-dog world of legal practice. He wants to change the world to make it a better place for all but, in a moment of profound sadness after losing his mentor, does exactly what he hates George Pierce for—loving money over and above protecting his client. The thriller part is whether or not he gets caught for breaking the law.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a little over two hours long. Although entirely watchable (no, it isn’t boring at all and that’s mostly because Denzel Washington and Colin Farrell deliver such magnificent performances), there are scenes that make you wonder if they belong in the story at all. But even those I can forgive. It’s the ending that kills me. George Pierce becoming a moral clone of Roman Isreal—really?—as he personally files the petition to attack the plea-bargaining system. I had one eyebrow raised as the end credits rolled. I couldn’t help it.