ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. * *
Starring Denzel Washington, Carmen Ejogo, Amanda Warren, Hugo Armstrong and Colin Farrell. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy.
Writer-director Dan Gilroy’s perplexingly inert sophomore effort Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a peculiar and unsatisfying movie experience. It’s a head-scratcher, this one – wasting an eccentric performance by the endlessly watchable Denzel Washington, who these days never can seem to get his hands on a script worthy of his immense talent unless it was written by August Wilson.
With this tale of slippery legal ethics in a fallen world of sharp-suited sharks, Gilroy appears to be aiming for a companion piece to his big brother Tony’s fine 2007 directorial debut Michael Clayton. But the best I can surmise after puzzling over the picture is that the younger Gilroy came up with a compelling character and a thematic journey, then didn’t bother writing a story in which to frame them. It’s like if the Lincoln Lawyer never got out of his car.
Denzel plays the title character wearing a bushy afro, Coke-bottle glasses and a double-breasted cranberry suit, with a grungy pair of orange foam-tipped headphones constantly blasting the movie’s excellent soul soundtrack. Roman’s the wonky backroom brain in a two-man legal defense organization, handling all the briefs and research since he lacks the social skills for client or courtroom encounters. We’re led to believe he’s somewhere on the spectrum in that queasy, exploitative way that movies tend to treat autism as a set of superpowers.
When his law partner abruptly passes away, the staunchly idealistic Roman finds himself absorbed into a larger firm run by Colin Farrell’s impeccably coiffed smoothie, and before long is tempted to dip a toe or two into murkier moral waters. Improperly acting on privileged information makes Roman a much wealthier man, and he’s soon treating himself to snazzy suits, classier digs, and that soundtrack sounds even better on new, top-of-the-line headphones. But wouldn’t you know, as it turns out, money isn’t really everything? What happened to, like, integrity?
Gilroy’s breathlessly overpraised directorial debut Nightcrawler had a similar, pearl-clutching approach to the shocking revelation that sometimes tabloid media can be pretty sleazy — it felt like the script had been sitting in a drawer somewhere since 1986. Roman’s arc of late-breaking corruption and last-minute redemption is the kind of material that usually rounds out a solid thriller into something more than the sum of its parts. (See also: Clayton, Michael.) But here it’s the whole show, foregrounding behavior at the expense of story in an attempted homage to “1970s character studies” while conveniently forgetting that the films being referenced also had strong plots driving the drama.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. features the most half-assed excuse for a car chase I’ve seen in ages, a transparent bit of posturing from a movie that clearly considers itself above such simple pleasures of genre. I wouldn’t mind Gilroy’s snottiness if he had the chops to back it up. Instead we suffer the lazy screenwriting shortcut of a character (Carmen Ejogo) who exists solely to heap unearned praise upon the protagonist and much ado about an epic legal brief by Roman that we’re repeatedly assured will change the world but we’re never told quite how. The latter subplot feels –like the rest of the picture– both tediously over-explained and maddeningly incomplete.