Denzel Washington may be the most accomplished actor of our generation. Like a chameleon, he’s morphed from the stern father in Fences to a dorky, introverted attorney in this meandering crime/drama/thriller. His talent is more than enough reason to sit through the two hours and nine minutes of misguided, anticlimactic storytelling.
Writer/director Dan Gilroy’s feature film debut Nightcrawler, about a sleazy paparazzo, hinted at a bright future. This sophomore slump, his second piece of direction and tenth screenplay, is noteworthy for creating an impressionable character: Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Washington), is a socially conscious, politically-minded attorney. He’s a remnant of the ‘70s pro-black movement. The puffy Afro, big glasses and boxy-looking suits make him look like a college professor frozen in time.
Now in his mid 60s, he’s spent the better part of his career sequestered in a Los Angeles law office, surrounded by files and books. He’s an egghead. The brains of the firm, not the dazzling courtroom attorney. At home, with record albums stacked around his cluttered apartment, it looks as if he has idiosyncrasies akin to a hoarder. His brilliant mind (he memorizes legal statutes like Martha Stewart recalls recipes) is evident. His awkwardness around people is profound, like someone with Asperger’s Syndrome.
When Roman’s extroverted law partner suffers a heart attack and can’t return to work, the book worm is forced to plead cases in criminal courtrooms, to no success. He finds work at a glitzy law firm run by a slick attorney (Colin Farrell), and fails to fit in. A budding romance with a teacher/social activist (Carmen Ejogo) brings him to the doorstep of reality. Working a case for a defendant who is accused of murder puts the naïve and income-challenged Roman in a tempting situation where he can collect a reward. Roman, “I’m tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful.”
Gilroy’s script exhausts its energy in the beginning, meticulously setting up Roman’s character. Then it runs out of steam and ideas. What’s the point in watching a man who is living on the edge of insanity if there isn’t a breakthrough that takes him somewhere audiences could not have imagined? Or, why tag along with a failed attorney if he doesn’t redeem himself? As the momentum flails in this character-driven film, so does Gilroy’s direction.
The pacing (editor John Gilroy, Michael Clayton and The Bourne Legacy) is decent regardless. The cinematography (Robert Elswit, Michael Clayton, The Bourne Legacy) takes the spit and polish off LA and makes its street scenes look as grimy as those in New York. The contrast between Roman’s old digs and his new fancy condo is all the more startling because of the diametrically-opposed set designs (set decorator Meg Everist and production design Kevin Kavanaugh from Nightcrawler). And if prizes were given for making wonky characters appear suitably shabby, costume designer Francine Jamison-Tanchuck (The Birth of a Nation) would win.
Colin Farrell, with his slicked-back hair and fancy suits displays the right balance of cold-as-ice calculating attorney and caring snake. Somehow, it’s a bit hard to imagine a woman who looks like Carmen Ejogo (Selma) having a romantic interest in man who looks like an urban bear. Yet, their beauty and the beast flirtations are worth a gander.
Both actors greatly support Denzel Washington as he crafts a character that was not previously in his arsenal. He’s concocted crooked narcotics officers (Training Day), pugilists (The Hurricane), heroic activists (Malcolm X) and gunslingers (The Magnificent Seven). In most of his performances anger, decisiveness and self-assurance well-compliment his leading man looks. For the first time in memory, those innate characteristics are absent. His Roman is a muddled misfit who makes bad choices and his instincts block him. The slouchy body, protruding stomach and puffy face also mean Washington has laid all vanity aside to thoroughly inhabit this unique role. And, he delivers his lines with dour sarcasm. When an offer is made to Roman, the indignant attorney responds, “It’s an enema of sunshine.”
The quirky story of Roman J. Israel, Esq. is unmemorable. However, it is a very useful showcase for one of the finest actors working today. This kind of performance makes Oscar voters stand in awe. This kind of acting keeps viewers’ eyes glued to the screen, regardless of the surroundings.
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.