Roman J. Israel, Esq.

It generally might be difficult to sympathize with lawyers, yet Roman J. Israel Esq. certainly gives it a shot.

However, this awkwardly titled character study from director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) overdoses on quirks and stale platitudes about social and legal injustice, leaving its intriguing title character in search of a better film.

Roman (Denzel Washington) is a legal savant who has spent three decades working as the right-hand man to a Los Angeles defense attorney whose best days came during the civil-rights movement. Despite noble intentions toward finding justice for the disenfranchised, his out-of-touch cadences and inability to follow protocol makes it easy to see why he’s not the face of the firm.

When his boss dies suddenly, his family opts to shutter the fledgling firm with the assistance of a hotshot lawyer (Colin Farrell) who doesn’t account for Roman’s persistence, and winds up finding a way to utilize his skill set almost out of pity.

Meanwhile, Roman befriends the leader (Carmen Ejogo) of a legal nonprofit who sees the compassion beneath the clumsiness. But an impulsive decision while defending a case involving dangerous gang members is what precipitates his downfall.

Gilroy’s screenplay frames its protagonist as an underdog crusader who represents countless others working tirelessly behind the scenes for little or no credit. Roman’s passionate idealism stretches credibility, although the film provides balance through character flaws, mostly related to his extreme social awkwardness and lack of sufficient money management skills.

Some of his eccentricities are endearing. When a client asks him about the self-imposed “esquire” title, his explanation is that it’s a special designation “slightly above gentleman and below knight.”

Washington offers another committed performance, embodying Roman through a physical transformation that includes an Afro, a paunch, oversized glasses, hunched posture, and an entire closet’s worth of cheap suits.

Like his wardrobe, Roman is a bit of a relic from a bygone era. Yet the film, to its credit, doesn’t dwell on the specifics of his generational deficiencies, other than a couple of amusing references to his gigantic briefcase and reliance on handwritten note cards.

Ultimately, his greatest strength is also his biggest downfall. In making that point, the film projects the same cynicism and heavy-handed moralizing as Roman. Amid the ensuing third-act contrivances, much of the moral complexity becomes lost in the process. The verdict is mixed.


Rated PG-13, 122 minutes.