Denzel Washington's labored portrayal of a shambling legal savant named Roman J. Israel, Esq. is the least of the movie's worries. This is a story of shifting ethics that should be dramatic, but shaky logic prevents that from happening.
Dan Gilroy's follow-up to his bracing 2014 debut Nightcrawler is toothless by comparison, written as detached from reality as his hero. Roman's mouse-click case memory is likely somewhere on the autism spectrum, camouflaged by grumpy old mannerisms. He's stuck in the '70s with shoulder-wide lapels and an Eddie Kendricks ringtone, clinging to Angela Davis' values.
Roman's impersonal demeanor doesn't suit courtrooms. For decades he has been the office-only partner for a renowned Los Angeles civil rights attorney. Now his partner is incapacitated and Roman takes over, doing more than he should. The pattern continues when the firm is taken over by George Pierce (Colin Farrell), the sort of profiteering attorney Roman despises.
It's an interesting departure for Washington, a stretch in a dubious direction from his typically confident characters, even when flawed or challenged. Roman's stooped gait and compulsive tics aren't peculiarities this supremely assured actor attempts much and it shows. The performance is good — what Denzel joint isn't? — but unsatisfying with what Gilroy writes around it.
Gilroy rambles through Roman's fractured life for an hour before pieces begin interlocking, twice as long as necessary. Roman's relationship with George goes one way then another. A community organizer (Carmen Ejogo) takes interest in this old, odd man. A murder defendant (DeRon Horton) offers Roman information about the shooter in exchange for a lighter sentence.
What Roman does with that information sets Gilroy's movie on a course feeling like a writer seeking a way out after a character study runs it course. Washington gets burdened with monologues of pretzel-legal lingo as Roman's life turns around by unethical means while George gains a conscience. None of it makes sense scene-to-scene. Whatever point Gilroy is making about greedy jurisprudence gets jumbled by verbiage and the distraction of a great actor struggling with it.
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Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Director: Dan Gilroy
Cast: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Amanda Warren, DeRon Horton, Amari Cheatom, Niles Fitch, Hugo Armstrong
Screenplay: Dan Gilroy
Rating: R; strong profanity, brief violence
Running time: 120 min.