Denzel Washington isn’t enough to keep ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’ afloat

Updated Nov 21, 2017
Tribune News Service
Denzel Washington stars in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” GLEN WILSON/SONY PICTURES VIA AP

Writer/director Dan Gilroy gave Jake Gyllenhaal one of his best roles in 2014’s creepy “Nightcrawler,” about the slimy side of crime and TV news.

With “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” Gilroy is trying to do the same for Denzel Washington, who has already won two Oscars, for 2002’s “Training Day” and 1990’s “Glory.”

Washington delves deeply into his talent to create Roman J. Israel, Esq., a lawyer who has an apparently encyclopedic mind about cases and has been working on a big project that exposes how rotten plea deals can be — and how those plea deals affect low-income people far worse than anyone else.

But Washington’s Israel has some issues. He has never been in court before. He works for an aging lawyer as a silent partner. He looks like he has stepped out of the 1960s or ’70s, with a big Afro and ill-fitting, mismatched clothes. And he is apparently something of a savant, possibly with Asperger’s syndrome, although the matter is left unclear in the script.

Washington plays the role with sincerity and a bit of goofiness, especially when he’s interacting with others. He doesn’t understand the niceties of social banter, and he’s certainly not ready for prime time in the courtroom.

At home, he is isolated. He has posters on his wall of Angela Davis. He eats peanut butter all the time. And he has no friends.

Such characteristics would be easy to turn into a caricature, but Washington calibrates Israel’s quirkiness.

Along the way, Gilroy introduces other characters, including William Jackson, the man who has employed Israel at his Los Angeles firm. But Jackson dies early in the movie, and Colin Farrell, playing a slick lawyer named George, comes to Israel’s rescue and offers him a behind-the-scenes role at a prominent downtown firm. Israel doesn’t fit in.

Regrettably, Gilroy doesn’t get a handle on the overall quirkiness of the movie. It’s a tone that’s tough to maintain, and Gilroy doesn’t manage, especially in the third act, which has a dramatic tonal shift.

The problems start when the earnest Israel does something not entirely ethical. And that’s a big problem, because Israel has been portrayed up till then as the epitome of conscientiousness.

When Israel goes on a shopping spree with newfound money and buys some new clothes — and even a bathing suit — you get the sense that we might be entering “Rain Man” territory. Wrong.

The humor doesn’t last. And even Washington’s performance can’t save “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”