Our fast-paced technological culture speeds along with new information, innovations, and tech-enabled practices at a rate that some of us can scarcely wrap our minds around. Further, this culture shames, ridicules, and writes off anyone who can’t keep up. Those people are a. Lazy, b. stupid, c. useless, and d. stuck in the past. So say the culture gurus, the tech entrepreneurs, and the millennial wiz kids. Get with the program or get left behind. Except some of us spent a lot of time and energy getting good–indeed, expert– at things that may now be considered obsolete. Faced with radical change, some of us have trouble adapting. Some may be forced to start over and may not adapt at all. Some adapt, always running a step behind. And some, faced with the eradication of a world they once knew well and forced to navigate a landscape where they feel lost and uncomfortable, grow bitter and disillusioned. Not everyone is cut out to be cutting edge.
These are some of the thoughts I had watching Roman J. Israel, Esq., the new film starring Oscar winner Denzel Washington.
Roman is a socially maladjusted, stuck-in-the-1970s legal wizard who is relegated to the back room of a Los Angeles law practice to do extensive research and legal strategy, while his universally admired law partner pleads the cases in public. Deeply committed to justice, with an encyclopedic knowledge of the law and a dogged sense of persistence, Roman seems to have made his peace with his role as the power behind the throne. Subsisting on peanut butter, engulfed in the sounds of classic soul and jazz recordings, and reliving his own halcyon days as a committed advocate of grassroots organizing for political change at a time when the Black Panthers were news, Roman has turned his tumbledown Koreatown apartment and his cluttered downtown office into a well-fortified, protective bubble against modern times. Until the day the bubble bursts, and Roman discovers that the throne was really just a rickety chair.
Change arrives in the form of a slick-suited corporate attorney named George Pierce (Colin Farrell), named by Roman’s law partner and his family to liquidate the company now that the partner has had a heart attack. George quickly shatters Roman’s illusions. The firm was in debt. The crusading law partner he so admired was engaged in kickbacks. And the partner’s largesse, keeping Roman on the payroll but out of sight for years, has made him not just unfit to run the firm on his own, but damn near unemployable anywhere else. Despite Roman’s efforts to get hired on elsewhere, he is forced to take the pity position George holds out to him at his fancy schmancy, high-cost, high-rise law firm where Roman’s musty wide-lapel suits, puffed out fro, and no-filter pronouncements just don’t fit in.
Roman’s attempts to get with the program and prove that he can lawyer with the best of them lead him to make a major gaffe on a murder case that could attract a malpractice suit to his new firm. He presents his pet project, a long-labored-over bill to reduce plea bargaining and excessive sentencing, to George and is rejected. Then his attempt to give a presentation to a group of young, potential activists breaks down over gender politics. He’s discomfited by the interest and admiration of Maya, a non-profit organizer he’s met during his job search. Tired of being wrong, even as he tries to do what’s right, and tired of being last while others seem to go first, Roman makes an illegal grab for a gold ring so that he can get a taste of the high life. Even as he regrets the move and attempts to right it, he is doomed by his decision.
Denzel does his usual bang-up job giving us a convincing portrait of a character we don’t see every day. But while autism is hinted at, we never find out exactly what Roman has been diagnosed with or its specific effect on his life, other than spouting unedited phrases like “enemas of sunshine” (which I’m going to adopt in place of “bullshit”, lol) and eating Jif every night. His law partner, painted as an eminent civil rights hero, is never shown on screen. And in scenes where he consults with the suspects in a grocery store killing, Roman doesn’t have any problems communicating. While his character is being pressured on all sides, the choice that he makes to trade privileged information for reward money seems to come out of nowhere. Elsewhere in the film, Farrell’s George Pierce can’t decide if he is a cold-hearted corporate villain or a touchy-feely mentor. And Carmen Ejogo tries to give the character of Maya a committed center, but her attraction to Roman seems unrealistic as well.
It’s far from a perfect film. But I think it’s worth seeing. It made me think about how our culture leaves little room for people with differences, and how the desperation of being caught up in changing circumstances can tempt us, under pressure, to move the needle on our own moral compasses. Hold tight to your convictions, people. We’re moving faster than ever, but don’t lose your grip on your soul.
Reviewed by Janine Coveney