Denzel Washington has played many kinds of people over the years, but “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is the first time he’s had a chance to play a nerd. It’s fascinating.
The title character is a Los Angeles attorney but not the kind of hotshot who takes on celebrated cases — that would be Roman’s law partner and boss, who has a heart attack in the opening scenes of the movie and who we never once see. Roman, by contrast, is the backroom guy, the borderline savant with a head full of case law, an early-’90s wardrobe, and social awkwardness that places him somewhere on the spectrum. A onetime radical activist and idealist, he’s been frozen in that back room doing criminal defense work for 35 years. The movie wants to show what happens when he’s forced to thaw out.
“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is mostly a character study in search of a plot, but since it’s Washington playing the character, you don’t much mind. The writer-director is Dan Gilroy, a former screenwriter who got behind the camera in 2014 with the Jake Gyllenhaal creepathon “Nightcrawler.” That was a strong debut and this is a sophomore slump that’s still worth your time — a throwback to midbudget dramas of conscience whose failures are primarily those of ambition.
And Roman J. Israel is, in Washington’s embodiment of him, an indelible figure — a man who has been invisible for so long he doesn’t know how to be seen. He has the weight, the bottom-heaviness, of someone stuck behind a desk for decades, and an uncombed afro that tries to look back to the 1960s and doesn’t get there. Roman’s brain and conversation seethe with obscure statutes, with racial inequities, with institutional injustices, and most people he meets write him off as a weirdo. There are times you may wonder if he is and we are heading into Travis Bickle territory.
Yet Gilroy wants us to admire his curious hero, too, and to ponder where social idealism belongs in the dire days of 2017. With his partner’s incapacitation and the closing down of the law firm, Roman is at a loss for income and opportunity. Showing up at the offices of a civil rights nonprofit, he offers the chief organizer, Maya (Carmen Ejogo), a chance to hire him on as “your long-haul revolutionary in-house paid advocate.” “What a freak,” murmurs her co-worker. “You stand on his shoulders,” she snaps back.
“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” grows more complex and more bizarre when Roman is brought in by George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a slick white attorney with a high-rise practice whose law school mentor was Roman’s boss. Is Pierce on the level? Is Roman being played? I’m not sure even Gilroy knows.
There are scenes that feint toward Peter Sellers in “Being There,” with Roman’s increasingly out-there actions and comments interpreted as wisdom by Pierce, the worshipful Maya, and others in his orbit. A chance to inspire a new generation of activists of color turns into a fiasco. Even as Roman is coming untethered from reality — and being tempted by an ethical quandary after years of renunciation — the film holds him up as a quixotic hero.
There are just too many pick-up sticks on this pile, and it’s to Washington’s credit — and to Gilroy’s as he gamely plows ahead — that they don’t come crashing down until the end, with a development that turns drama into melodrama after nearly two hours of walking the line. “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” has the feel of a movie that’s been through the cutting-room rinse more than once in an effort to find its shape, and the effort hasn’t paid off. There are too many story lines and too few pursued; too many big speeches that don’t make enough sense. Gilroy the director should probably have been tougher on Gilroy the writer (and Gilroy the editor should have been harder on both).
In the end, though, you’re left with another Denzel Washington performance that gets under your skin and stays there, rankling away. That’s a lot more than most movies offer — even the better ones.
ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.
Written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Starring Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo. At Fenway, suburbs. 122 minutes. PG (language and some violence).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.