Roman J. Israel, Esq., C
Rated PG-13, 129 minutes
The well-acted yet uneven new Denzel Washington drama "Roman J. Israel" builds a strong case, yet falters in its closing arguments. Its strongest case of course is the fact the film rides solely on the charms of its Oscar-winning lead for tackling such an unusual character, but it fails with a lackluster, dull story that never quite comes together.
Roman J. Israel (Washington) is a driven, idealistic defense attorney whose life is upended when his mentor, a civil rights icon, dies. When he is recruited to join a firm led by one of the legendary man’s former students – the ambitious lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell) – and begins a friendship with a young champion of equal rights (Carmen Ejogo), a turbulent series of events ensue that will put the activism that has defined Roman’s career to the test.
The modestly entertaining and likable "Roman J. Israel Esq." is directed and written by "Nightcrawler's" Dan Gilroy and is held together by the appeal and energy of Washington as the lead. Without him, it wouldn't be as near as fun to watch; with large frame glasses, an Afro and frumpy clothes, he makes the part of Israel, a man with a brilliant legal mind but who has lacked personal ambition, his own. On this note, the audience should be thankful it has such a talented actor front and center, given the film's other flaws.
The flaws here aren't with Washington, but with Gilroy's sluggish script and direction, which lack the skill and narrative heft that his "Nightcrawler" had. In particular, the middle act tends to take a few crazy loops before returning to the character's original idealism; its slow pacing certainly doesn't help matters, either, and one that may prompt you to take a few glances at your watch.
Washington is well-supported by "The Beguiled's" Farrell as a slick, unsympathetic lawyer whose motivations are clear, and "Selma's" Ejogo is a warm presence as a romantic interest for Israel. Still, the film is quietly commanded by Washington, whose character Israel knows both law code and how to eat Maple Turkey Bacon doughnuts on the beach.
With that in mind, "Roman J. Israel" is a bit of an oddity: a legal film that wins a few arguments but loses its case. You won't look away as long Washington is onscreen, you just wish it were more interesting. A disappointment for director and star.