Through two films, writer-director Dan Gilroy already has an attraction to eccentric, persistent loaners who love what they do. In “Nightcrawler,” that loner was Lou Bloom, (Jake Gyllenhaal) a bulgy eyed parasitic wannabe entrepreneur who becomes a stringer in L.A. and proceeds to manipulate/screw over everyone around him. In “Roman J. Israel Esq.” that loner is the titular character, a stubborn and socially awkward Civil Rights lawyer played by Denzel Washington.
Instead of going to trial and arguing cases, Israel is most comfortable performing the behind the scenes duties—the administrative tasks and the mitigation work. He believes in doing things the old fashion way; he works on note cards and rolodexes. He has an old cellphone that he barely uses. Israel eats nothing but peanut butter sandwiches; the kitchen cabinets of his shabby inner city apartment are lined with containers of Jif. In other words, he’s a quirky dude! And he may not always know how to interact with people but he’s passionate about law and wants to make a difference.
Not surprisingly, Washington is in top form. Israel is more timid and clumsy, in how he talks and moves, compared to the characters Washington usually portrays. He’s so good at playing smooth, charismatic cool guys and calm authoritative figures that it’s a bit of a shock at first to see him play this quirky, spectrum-y lawyer. But he brings all of Israel’s idiosyncrasies to life with earnestness and some restraint.
The rest of “Roman” is loaded with potential. Israel’s life is suddenly thrown into chaos when his longtime lawyer partner dies and all of their clients are given over to a cold corporate law firm, headed by cold corporate lawyer George Pierce (Collin Farrell, who may as well be holding his script in his hands during his scenes. He’s positively robotic.). The film’s commentary on the impersonal, “assembly line” nature of corporate law firms is pungent. And Roman’s ongoing mission to fix a flawed legal system that encourages people to plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit in order to avoid harsher punishment is urgent; as is the moral dilemma Israel soon finds himself in. Does he continue to work and to try and reform the system for little in return, or does he sell out?
Unfortunately, those intriguing subjects and questions are let down by Gilroy’s bland screenplay, which relies more on telling than showing-- draining the film of vitality. In “Nightcrawler” there was a palpable sense of suspense propelling the action forward. We anxiously chomped on our nails and clenched the armrests of our theater seats waiting to see what Bloom would do next. We wanted to know how low he would go and how deranged he would become to achieve personal success. Bloom had a menacing, unpredictable aura about him that made the film endlessly fascinating.
In “Roman” everything is telegraphed from the start. The narrative and character trajectory is neatly laid out in the opening scene and Gilroy tediously follows that blueprint beat by beat, bluntly explaining plot points and character motivations before reaching the predictably tragic conclusion. Even worse, the script is longwinded and verbose in a way that’s obnoxiously self-satisfied. Gilroy’s dialogue is riddled with clunky and pretentious metaphors that would even make Oliver Stone roll his eyes. The movie doesn’t need to be suspenseful in the way “Nightcrawler” was but it doesn’t need to be so heavy handed in its storytelling. “Roman J. Israel Esq.” has good intentions with its subject matter and Washington is magnificent but the overall execution here is underwhelming and unconvincing.