Writer/director Dan Gilroy had Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington in mind when he was creating the script for “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” His instincts were right. Washington buries himself deep in the role of a savant lawyer who finds himself at a major junction in his life when his mentor dies. As Washington has done in every role he plays, it’s not just enough to act out the words on the script but he embodies the character to the nexus of total transformation.
Generally, that kind of work has a profound positive affect on the project. But, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is an example of what happens when there is too much of a good thing. Washington’s portrayal so obliterates everyone else on the screen the film comes across less as an examination of a man trying to deal with the shifting quicksand of time and more as a vanity project for Washington. His performance is so intense, it is like trying to peer through the sun to get a glimpse of Venus on the other side.
The role Washington attacks with such vigor is that of a lawyer with a brilliant and beautiful mind who is more comfortable pouring over law books than dealing with social situations. This is a man who eats peanut butter sandwiches for every meal. He’s found the perfect job working in a two-man law firm where he does all of the work in the office while the courtroom duties fall to his boss and mentor.
When that mentor dies, Israel’s forced to leave the comfortable environment he has enjoyed for decades to search for other work. He eventually ends up in a high-end law firm run by George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a former student of Roman’s old boss. The problem is Israel has a tough time adjusting to his new duties and that results in big problems.
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Washington’s work taking Israel from his legal cocoon into the real world is so big that lost is almost all of the commentary by Gilroy (”Nightcrawler”) about changing times and values. A key issue about Israel being stuck in the ’60s as far as his thinking goes never manifests itself clearly because the attention drawn away by Washington as he plays out Israel’s transformation. There’s more attention paid to the character’s choice of wardrobe than showing the emotional lines between the past and the present.
There are some visual cues provided by Gilroy to how the world has changed, including multiple looks at the building Israel has called home for decades. It’s being consumed by the urban renewal exploding around him but even that metaphor gets overshadowed by Washington’s work.
Those scenes of downtown Los Angeles are examples of the way Gilroy enjoys using locations in the city that have rarely been used despite all the TV and film production in the city. As he did with “Nightcrawler,” Gilroy selects spots that will never be on a tourist map from graffiti-filled alleys to homeless-filled streets. This gives his works a grittiness that gave “Nightcrawler” a solid base of reality. That’s lost in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” because Washington keeps pulling the focus away.
Only Farrell has the acting energy to avoid being totally eclipsed by Washington’s efforts. Farrell has the ability to play Pierce both as a billing-hours-come-first head of the law form and as a man truly concerned about a fellow lawyer’s fate. The scenes where the two are together are the best because they come the closest to anchoring the film in a small oasis of reality.
The failings for “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” aren’t entirely Washington’s fault. Part of the it’s-all-about-men work by Washington comes from the fact there are far too many scenes that come across as fillers used to get to more interesting moments that just never come. A major shift in tone and direction with the story at the midway point rings so false that the second half of the movie becomes less of an interesting tale of social growth and more of a predictable plod to the expected finale. Gilroy’s willingness to change the key design of his character just to fit a plot change is definitely a major weakness. Because of that, a movie that should have ended on a huge emotional note winds up p feeling more like the kind of relief than comes after a hurricane has finally passed through.
Gilroy also fails in his attempt to interject a romance angle to the story with Carmen Ejogo’s character of a lawyer running a service that offers legal advice on social issues. Every scene where Gilroy tries to show the spark of romance gets blown out because it feels forced.
The key issue is that Gilroy has worked as a writer for years but “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is only his second film as a director. If he had a few more directing projects to his credit, he probably would have been better equipped to pull Washington back just enough to make the work more interesting. There’s a great case to be made that a little more control by Washington and a major re-write to the script — especially the second half — would have made for a more even and interesting production.
Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Rated: PG-13 for mild language, violence. Starring: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo. Director: Dan Gilroy. Running time: 129 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 14.