By now, we all know that Denzel Washington can do anything. There’s a reason there’s a podcast Denzel Washington Is the Best Actor in the World Period. But even giving it his all, he can’t rescue the muddled, perplexing Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Washington plays the titular character: a shabbily dressed but brilliant lawyer. He’s prickly but cares deeply for his clients, most of whom couldn’t afford a pricier attorney. When the head of the tiny firm he works at suffers a heart attack, it throws his entire life into a downward spiral. He’s forced to reckon with the life of service that has kept him at the same apartment, on the same fixed income, with the same bulky iPod for years.
But the film never quite figures out where it wants to go. It tries to be a morality play, a character study, an indictment of the unjust legal system and occasionally a thriller, a romance and a drama about mental illness (I think). It’s frequently confused and therefore doesn’t work, even with a great performance at the center.
Part of the problem is the condensed timeframe. The audience is supposed to buy that Roman loses his job, accepts one at a shady firm, loses his moral compass, finds it, and inspires several others in the span of just three weeks. Even though Roman as a character is impressive, that’s just too much disbelief to suspend.
Dan Gilroy’s last movie was the unrepentantly nasty and cynical Nightcrawler, which earned him an Oscar nomination. It’s still one of the darkest mainstream movies of recent times. That movie, even if it wasn’t as advertised, knew exactly what it was, for better or worse. (I thought it was great.) Unfortunately, Roman J. Israel, Esq. never knows what it is.