PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — It would be tempting and easy to dismiss Denzel Washington’s flashy, busy, intriguing lead performance as and in Roman J. Israel, Esq. as a second-tier outing for him.
But that’s because he has spoiled us with more than his share of stellar, inspired work, including Training Day (Oscar), Glory (Oscar), Malcolm X (Oscar nomination), The Hurricane (Oscar nomination), Cry Freedom (Oscar nomination), Fences (Oscar nomination), Flight (Oscar nomination), and the underappreciated Courage Under Fire.
So let’s just call his Roman J. Israel, Esq. turn a portrait that’s never less than interesting, but that doesn’t approach greatness, a place he has frequently visited.
And the reason for that, in the main, is a flawed screenplay.
As the title suggests, this is a character study. But it’s disguised as a legal activism drama about a small law firm that defends the poor and the down and out – those who have the system stacked against them in contemporary Los Angeles.
It’s dominated from first frame to last by Washington’s driven, absorbed, idealistic, socially awkward, motormouth defense lawyer, who would appear to be somewhere in the Asperger range of the autism spectrum.
He has an uncannily encyclopedic knowledge of the law, but his hair and wardrobe suggest that he’s stuck in the seventies.
This is the character writer-director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) is interested in and his approach gives Washington plenty to work with.
Used to staying in the background and the office while his partner argues cases – because his social awkwardness alienates judges – Roman suddenly has to become the face of his small firm when his partner has a severe health problem.
Eventually, Roman finds himself in the employ of a slick corporate law firm run by hotshot Colin Farrell.
But in the name of juicy conflict, Gilroy’s script, somewhere in the second act, creates a crisis that leads to Roman doing something outlandish that contradicts all we have learned about him and his ethics to that point.
Roman’s behavior at this point is so arbitrary, we just don’t buy it. And this not only makes it either difficult or impossible for Washington to keep us on his side or in his pocket, it saps the strength of the film’s ending.
That said, Gilroy demonstrates a strong sense of place and offers worthwhile observations about corruption in the legal system.
So, yes, the film has its rewards. But, ultimately, we on the jury remain reluctant to believe the case being presented.
Which is why we’ll defend 2 stars out of 4 for Roman J. Israel, Esq. We buy Denzel’s tics and tricks, but the script never clicks.