Dan Gilroy’s 2014 debut “Nightcrawler” was an astonishing portrait of a fiercely driven Los Angeles character who roamed the city in search of an opportunity. Elevated by an eerie Jake Gyllenhaal performance at its center, the movie showed Gilroy’s eye for maniacal social climbers driven by pure narcissistic desire. It’s surprising, then, that Gilroy’s sophomore effort focuses on a sincere figure from the opposite end of the spectrum. In “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”, Denzel Washington portrays an earnest criminal defense attorney alienated by his staunch desire to do the right thing. Washington does what he can with a schmaltzy character, but Gilroy’s talky, half-hearted screenplay suffers from a stubborn commitment to bland law-and-order chatter in search of the bigger picture.
Which is not to say that Roman Israel himself lacks substance. Donning clunky headphones, an unseemly afro, and wireframe glasses, the bumbling introvert looks as though he’s trapped in the ’60s-era Civil Rights awakening that informs his idealistic worldview. As the movie begins, he faces a sudden breach to his longstanding pursuit of social justice when his partner at the law firm he’s run for decades has a debilitating heart attack.
Suddenly forced out of the shadows, Roman assumes he must become the new face of the firm; instead, he’s forced into the employ of hotshot lawyer George (a stiff Colin Farrell), who runs a slick corporate firm that strikes Roman as antithetical to his genuine intentions.
As an earnest naif who believes in doing the right thing, Washington injects Roman with a kind of pathos that shows a gentler side to the actor than his usual domineering performances. It’s just too bad that Gilroy gives the actor so little to do. The movie drifts along through episodic developments in Roman’s life, suggesting it may have found a better home as a television series; the narrative simply can’t keep pace with its star.
Still, there’s much to explore about Roman’s disconnect with his surroundings. When he isn’t complicating the firm’s rigid structure by rejecting weak deals for his clients or insulting his square coworkers, Roman’s basically wandering the streets and contemplating the way the world has moved on without him. Visiting a group of college activists, he finds that even his progressive ideals can’t shield him from a room that sees him as an antique.
The bleeding-heart activist who runs the program, a supportive woman played in rather straightforward terms by Carmen Ejogo, sees Roman as an embodiment of goodwill fading from society in the years since his rise. Her unquestioning loyalty to him registers as somewhat thin, but it’s often fascinating to hear him talk through his frustrations — clearly, Gilroy had a blast conceiving this character — and the symbolic ramifications of his beliefs count for something. “I’m tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful,” he says, clarifying the movie’s themes.
But that’s also its key failing. Rather than developing Roman’s conundrum, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” settles for a prosaic character study laid out in painfully obvious terms, with a tacked-on twist in the third act just so that the story can find some way to end. There’s a palpable desperation to Roman’s world, but Gilroy can’t figure out what to do with it, settling for a vignette-like approach that rarely goes anywhere notable.
There are flashes of exuberant details that prove plenty of thought went into the construction of Roman’s world: Constant wide shots by the great cinematographer Robert Elswit (“There Will Be Blood”) draw out the cluttered, overdeveloped L.A. scenery to underscore Roman’s increasingly marginalized role within it, and his constant ability to push back on the bureaucracy of the legal process yields some memorable one-liners (rolling his eyes at plea bargain, he labels it “an enema of sunshine”).
But the movie often falls on the blunt instrument of its critique. One scene in which Roman steps up to claim the body of a dead man on the street, only to find that he’s not dead at all, shows Gilroy’s eagerness to prove Roman’s sincerity however he can. Certainly there’s a refreshing quality, in today’s dominance of back-stabbing, avaricious corporate leaders, to the nature of Roman’s purity. But the movie comes up short of generating the same passion that keeps Roman going — and when he starts losing faith in his mission, the movie follows suit.
“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It opens November 3 in limited release followed by a national expansion on November 10.