Roman J. Israel, Esq., the newest film from writer/director Dan Gilroy (2014’s Nightcrawler), is, unequivocally, a character study showcasing two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington’s acting prowess. Washington truly transformed himself to play the titular character, a Los Angeles lawyer with an impressive memory and a passion for the law, and who is most likely not neurotypical (though that subject is barely broached, aside from a character referring to Israel as a “savant”).
Sporting a teased hairdo, baggy suits straight out of the ’70s, and ancient headphones, Israel is undoubtedly an analog man in a digital world. He subsists entirely on peanut-butter sandwiches, and he keeps handwritten records of all of his cases on a rolodex. He has worked at the same law office with the same boss for about 30 years, and when that boss suffers a sudden heart attack that puts him in a coma, Israel’s life is turned upside down by huge changes—the first real changes he’s experienced in decades.
He soon meets George Pierce (Colin Farrell), the cold, profit-driven, high-powered attorney tasked with shutting down the law office. Pierce offers Israel a job with much higher pay at his own large firm; he accepts the offer, but it isn’t an easy transition.
Struggling with his need for gainful employment and the maintenance of his ideals, Israel visits a civil-rights center. There, he meets Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo), a passionate activist whose idealism almost matches his own. The two take to each other immediately, and develop a not quite romantic, not quite platonic relationship.
Despite this promising setup, the story unravels from here. Israel and Pierce are initially presented as one another’s foils, but both men undergo changes of heart and character that are far too radical to be believable, especially when you consider the fact that the film takes place over a span of roughly three weeks. And Alston, a potentially fascinating character, serves as little more than a frustratingly one-dimensional prop for Israel’s development.
The film’s backbone is its cast, who accomplish great feats of acting despite a less-than-stellar script. Farrell’s switch between cold-blooded and softhearted is compelling, and his onscreen dynamic with Washington is delightful to watch. The effort Washington put into knowing his character inside and out in order to truly embody him is astounding—barely recognizable, he shines in his portrayal of a shy, frumpy man, reminding the world just how great he is at acting (like we had forgotten!).
Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t know what it wants to be. Is it a moral drama? Is it a courtroom thriller? Is it just a vignette? The film spends its entire 129-minute runtime trying to figure out what kind of story it’s telling, and ultimately fails. The pacing is off, with a huge lull in the middle, and the main conflict isn’t even introduced until the last 30 minutes of the movie. It’s a shame that a potentially great character study is dragged down by such an uncertain plot line; perhaps, with a bit more time and care, the story would not have felt as rushed and choppy as it does.