Credit Glen Wilson/Sony Pictures Entertainment
Partly because of economics, partly because of a lack of imagination, Hollywood barely makes character-driven movies anymore. So there is a sense in which “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” a wildly idiosyncratic drama about a wildly idiosyncratic lawyer, deserves not only critical leniency, but also maybe your investment.
Yet this film doesn’t do the cause many favors. It certainly doesn’t serve Denzel Washington, in a role unlike any he has played that nevertheless saddles him with a collection of tics meant to compensate for the underrealized complexity of the part. And it offers tonal whiplash for viewers, with several potentially great ideas that don’t settle into a coherent whole. The movie starts in the vein of a ruthlessly intelligent drama like “Michael Clayton” before racing through adversity, running a couple of unearned victory laps and landing just shy of a mawkish Will Smith vehicle like “Seven Pounds.”
The film was written and directed by Dan Gilroy, whose “Nightcrawler” centered on Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a monomaniacal cameraman whose lack of a moral compass allowed him to succeed in local television news. Roman Israel (Mr. Washington) is equally single-minded in his pursuits, but otherwise he’s Lou’s opposite: a hapless striver whose compulsions interfere with his ambitions.
Trailer: ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’
Roman keeps to his office in a small Los Angeles firm. He is a whiz with briefs and apparently knows the legal code by number, but his partner is always the one who appears in court, having more tolerance for what Roman calls the “butchery” of plea deals and excessive sentences. When the partner has a heart attack, Roman, who can’t run the firm alone or stop himself from talking back to a judge, eventually takes a job with George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a high-flying lawyer who doesn’t necessarily share Roman’s ideals.
A veteran social reformer with a dated hairstyle and glasses that only exaggerate his awkwardness, Roman is almost certainly somewhere on the autism spectrum. In a performance that’s meant to grate, Mr. Washington highlights the character’s difficulty making eye contact and his habit of laughing and smiling with too much emphasis. As intriguing as it is to watch a movie about someone who is gifted yet hamstrung by his own mind, you do wonder whether — after Roman and Lou — Mr. Gilroy is capable of writing protagonists who aren’t so affectedly at odds with their environments.
The fish-out-of-water clash at the firm is absorbing enough, but the movie misfires when it appoints Roman as a sort of an angelic figure (or, as his last name may signal, a prophet). Carmen Ejogo appears as a younger civil rights advocate who, unlike the other activists we meet from her generation, recognizes Roman’s past contributions and explains that she feels privileged to know him. Roman even begins to grow on George, who inexplicably warms to him just as Roman is wreaking havoc at the firm. And when Roman makes not one but two symbolic getaways — one to Santa Monica, one to the desert — “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” seems like a movie that has no idea where it’s heading.