“Roman J. Israel Esq.” certainly is an ambitious mess. Director Dan Gilroy has a knack for making oddball films (“Nightcrawler”) but here he rambles around, seemingly lost, switching in tone and style so frequently that the end result has no clear direction. What kind of movie is this supposed to be?
Denzel Washington plays civil rights attorney Roman, a human encyclopedia who can recite every legal code from memory. He’s stuck in the late 1960s / early 1970s and when his law partner suddenly dies, Roman is recruited to join up at the high dollar law firm run by slick and ambitious attorney George (Colin Farrell). What follows is a totally bizarre and completely sloppy character study about the criminal justice system, political revolution, legal activism, and human fallacy.
Unconventional storytelling can be effective but here it’s lost amid a sea of uninspired performances. Farrell seems to be going through the motions in a surprisingly sterile turn, and Washington gives an off-kilter performance that, while more than competent, is wholly out of character. He is physically effective as a hulking presence whose distressing personality is swallowed only by his large afro and frumpy clothing, but his peculiar mannerisms of a psychologically and emotionally disturbed man come across as a little over the top at times. There are a couple of flashes of brilliance in both the performances, script and direction, but the highlight still is the distinct character that Washington creates onscreen. As with most of the leading men characters Gilroy has penned, Roman is creepy yet oddly sympathetic.
The plot, while basic, isn’t really a bad one, but the other shoe doesn’t drop until long after you’ve lost interest. The nuances in the story are incredibly detailed, yet audiences are left to their own devices as far as filling in the blanks to other parts of Roman’s backstory. It’s a real shame that this film isn’t more focused on its own finish line.