‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’ Movie Review: Denzel Washington Stars in ‘Meandering’ Legal Drama

Denzel Washington in ’Roman J. Israel, Esq.'
Denzel Washington in ’Roman J. Israel, Esq.' Columbia Pictures

2 stars (out of 4)

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is the kind of eccentric character that only exists in the movies. Donning oversize wire-rimmed glasses, an afro and clunky earphones around his neck, the criminal defense attorney looks like he was just transported to Los Angeles from a 1970s portal. Wait! A savant most likely on the spectrum (it’s never clear), he can recite obscure statutes by heart. What he doesn’t know, he stuffs into a giant suitcase. He avoids eye contact and stammers in his speech. A Civil Rights-era throwback, Roman is fiercely against plea-bargain justice and crusades for social rights.

I can see why star Denzel Washington was drawn to the role. He already played the hot shot attorney (in Philadelphia). Now he gets to be the unpredictable — and brilliant! — wild card, careening up and down a redemptive character arc. One of the greatest, most charismatic actors of the past 30 years still can’t make a Picasso out of a paint-by-numbers drama.

For three decades, Roman was known as the righteous “man behind the curtain” at his own small firm. (This still doesn’t explain his vinyl collection.) Then his partner has a debilitating heart attack. Roman thinks he can handle being the new face of the firm. Instead, he’s forced to work for a slick attorney (Colin Farrell, underused) at his corporate firm that reels in big money. The move is as ill-fitting as one of his newfangled single-breasted suit jackets. He just doesn’t do watercooler talk. How will he survive and thrive?

That set-up would make for an intriguing TV pilot. Surefire Emmy nomination for the actor playing the high-maintenance title character. (He insists on the fancy esquire in his title, by the way.) As a two-hour film, it feels episodic because of its lack of focus. At his new firm, Roman tries to work with a non-profit. He strikes up a friendship with the organizer (Carmen Ejogo). But he’s out of step with the politics of the young volunteers. His discovery of a seemingly dead man in the street erupts into a potentially violent confrontation with two officers. Then, at the film’s midpoint, he decides to break a few rules and literally cash in for reasons that I still don’t quite understand. It finally picks up in the third act, but the pacing shift is jarring. And the desperate need for a satisfying conclusion leads to more loose ends.

Writer-director Dan Gilroy’s most recent outing, the superb 2014 neo-noir Nightcrawler, also explored the life on an idiosyncratic L.A. loner (Jake Gyllenhaal) living in the shadows. With great power comes great corruption. Gilroy never finds his rhythm in his follow-up, and it shows. With a lack of confidence behind the camera, the film devolves into a half-hearted morality tale. I wasn’t even convinced the movie was set in Los Angeles. Could have been Anywhere, USA.

One other big difference between the two films: Whereas Gyllenhaal disappeared into the role of shady TV cameraman in Nightcrawler, Washington fails to hide his innate domineering screen presence. Roman has been beaten down by life to the point where he calls a city hotline several times a night to complain about neighborhood noise. Washington is just too powerful a force to sell it. I was constantly aware that I was watching him play someone. I had the same issue last year when Ben Affleck tried a similar character in the The Accountant. Some high-wattage movie stars just aren’t meant to play genius introverts.

When a film meanders too much, it fails to make much of an impact. Like Roman J. Israel, Esq. himself, this film’s destiny is to move back into the cinematic shadows all too soon.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. opens in theaters on Friday, November 17. For more reviews, go to Maramovies.com.

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