Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a fascinating character study that ultimately fails as a cohesive film. Writer/director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) posits an intriguing existential dilemma. The issue is that it doesn't play out logically. The ending feels forced and clunky. The resolve is clearly not in line with the substantive character exposition offered. It's a rare miss from Gilroy, one of Hollywood's finest screenwriters, and mega star Denzel Washington.
Denzel Washington transforms into Roman J. Israel, Esq.; a bespectacled, afro-wearing, overweight savant who shuffles around in thirty year old clothes. A staunch civil rights advocate with dreams of re-writing the criminal code, Israel has spent his adult life hiding from reality. He's the quiet partner in a struggling two man law firm. Israel has never set foot in court. He wrote the legal briefs, while his partner was the face of the firm. Israel's near autistic personality was shielded from having to deal with the outside world. This is painfully obvious when his partner dies of a heart attack, leaving him with nothing.
Israel is forced to work for George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a former student of his partner with a highly successful law firm. Pierce is bewildered by Israel, but employs him because of his extensive knowledge. Israel is the proverbial fish out of water. He begins to see how sheltered his life has been. A burgeoning friendship with a legal advocate (Carmen Ejogo) and his first murder case offers a devil's bargain. Money and success comes at the price of integrity.
The first half of this film is quite riveting. Gilroy portrays a man truly out of touch with his surroundings. Roman J. Israel is good and means well, but fails to grasp his place in the world. This is especially apparent when Roman searches for a new job. These scenes are well-written and acted. I particularly enjoyed the initial interplays between Denzel Washington and Colin Farrell. George Pierce respects Roman, but isn't going to let his idiosyncrasies tarnish his law office. Pierce dresses down Israel, in what amounts to a series of cold water moments for the titular character. If only Gilroy had been able to stick to the sharp narrative of the beginning.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. falls apart midway. It's a disheartening turn to say the least. The characters lose their edge and become rote. Israel's value system flips like a dime, leading to a severe moral lapse. I found this development to be a stretch. Israel's beliefs were etched in stone up to this point. While anyone can have a crisis of character, the cliff here proves to be too steep. It may have worked if Gilroy had written an ending on par with the open. He doesn't, and the pieces come together like a forced jigsaw puzzle. It's almost as if Gilroy had this great idea, but struggled to come up with a satisfactory conclusion. The end result becomes hackneyed and blunt.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is not lacking performance wise. Denzel Washington is sublime as usual. He more than holds his own, giving the character great depth. The problem is that all of his good work does not overcome the film's inherent flaws. Dan Gilroy needed to shore up the second half of this story. He lays a good foundation, but finishes the build with plywood not bricks. From Sony Pictures, Roman J. Israel, Esq. works as a vehicle for Denzel Washington's talent; but not much else.