In film, as with any performance art, it’s always an incredible feat when an actor disappears so deeply into a role that you almost begin to view the character as a real person. It’s all the more impressive when the feat is accomplished by an internationally recognizable megastar like Denzel Washington.
Portraying the titular role in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” Washington, as he’s done so many times before in an illustrious 40-year acting career, has brought a character to life in a way that defies you to discern where Washington ends and the character begins.
And the disappearing act isn’t solely sustained by the normally trim Washington’s noticeable 30-plus pound weight gain for the role. Just as writer/director Dan Gilroy provided for Jake Gyllenhaal in Gilroy’s mesmerizing 2014 debut effort “Nightcrawler,” the talented Gilroy has once again given his leading man a fascinating, neurotic character who’s consumed by his work to an obsessive level.
Unfortunately, the comparison between “Nightcrawler” and “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” from an execution standpoint is an entirely different story. While the former established Gilroy as a gritty storyteller undaunted by narrative risks, the latter sees Gilroy play things decidedly (and frustratingly) safe, resulting in a film that even its dynamic central character can’t steer away from dull familiarity.
Gilroy’s encore entrée focuses on Roman J. Israel, a schlubby, Los Angeles-based esquire whose sense of style is firmly entrenched in the 1970s (he’s also constantly listening to 70s tunes on his circa 2004 iPod), and whose supreme confidence in his Rainman-like understanding of written law starkly contrasts his extreme insecurities regarding interpersonal interactions.
Israel is forced out of his comfort zone as the “guy behind the curtain” at his two-person law firm, however, when his partner, typically the one who represents clients in court, suffers a sudden heart attack that lands him in the hospital for an extended stay.
To Israel’s pleasant surprise, his newfound responsibilities lead him to a higher-paying gig at a prominent corporate firm run by tailored suit-wearing George Pierce (Colin Farrell), as well as an unexpected romantic relationship with local civil rights activist volunteer Maya (Carmen Ejogo). But it also gets him into life-threatening hot water when, strapped for cash, he uses privileged information to report the whereabouts of a fugitive, only to be assigned to defend that very same fugitive in court.
Israel is one of the more three-dimensional characters you’ll see in theaters this year, which is a testament not only to Washington’s tour de force performance, but also Gilroy’s creativity in imbuing Israel with delightfully specific eccentricities (e.g., a shelf in Israel’s dingy apartment contains about a year’s worth of peanut butter jars, and Israel, without fail, eats his PB&Js while standing over the sink). Farrell and Ejogo are also engaging in their supporting roles (although both, particularly Ejogo, struggle to curb their native Irish and British accents into American ones).
Outside of the performances, there’s plenty else to like about the film. Gilroy and location scout Steve Beimler (who, you’ll be totally unsurprised to learn, also served as the location scout for “La La Land,”) have a knack for finding and taking full advantage of gritty Los Angeles locations that are so far off the beaten path — even lifelong Angelenos may struggle to place the sites in their minds. Indeed, many of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.’s” scenes have such a raw feel to them, you’re nearly fooled into believing that the film is set in New York City.
What ultimately weighs the film down, however, is that it tries to do too much. Ironically, it’s precisely this eagerness that mitigates it into a prosaic affair. It’s part character study, part romance, part cat-and-mouse, part criticism of the U.S. criminal justice system, part commentary on race relations in America and part examination of morality — all of which are wonderful avenues to explore, so long as you hone in on one. But “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” never does. As a result, loose ends are tied up a little too neatly, key dramatic elements don’t pack the punch they might have and even the moments that do work are too fleeting to fully satisfy.
I have no doubt of the following: (a) the script for “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” (which is rated PG-13) must have read extremely well on paper; (b) Washington will earn his sixth Oscar nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (and ninth nomination overall); and (c) if you do end up seeing the film, you will find elements you can thoroughly enjoy. But for committing the ultimately insurmountable crimes of failing to both realize its full potential and rise to the level of its star, I find “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” guilty on both counts.