Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Nazneen Contractor, Shelley Hennig, Tony Plana
Directed by Dan Gilroy
Denzel Washington scores his ninth Oscar nomination for “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” the sophomore film from writer-director Dan Gilroy who’s 2014 debut “Nightcrawler” earned the filmmaker a Best Original Screenplay nomination at the 87th Academy Awards. Remember the transformation Jake Gyllenhaal underwent to play desperate journalist Lou Bloom in Gilroy’s debut? Well, wait until you see Washington who also undergoes an amazing metamorphosis to play an awkward savant lawyer. After four decades of memorable roles, this is the first time you’ve seen the actor in this capacity and it’s mesmerizing.
Roman looks like he just stepped out of a time machine. From the large afro and three-piece suits to the orange headphones and Sony Walkman, everything about the aging lawyer screams the ‘70s. His apartment is filled with an extensive jazz vinyl collection, posters of Bayard Rustin and Angela Davis, and dozens of unopened jars of Jif peanut butter, a sign that we’re not just dealing with someone living in the past.
The film begins with a scene that gives the audience a glimpse of what’s to come and it doesn’t look good. We then jump back in time three weeks as Roman receives the news that his boss, respected attorney William Henry Jackson, has suffered a stroke. For the last 26 years, Roman has worked as a one-man research team helping Jackson prepare one winning defense after another. He knows the California penal code by heart, a trait that came in handy during his early days as a civil rights activist. Roman prepared the brunt of the legal work that helped his charismatic boss (or as Roma puts it “partner”) shine in the courtroom.
Forced out of his comfort zone, the behind-the-scenes lawyer appears in the courtroom to cover for Jackson who had a full slate of cases. Roman is familiar with each case but his condition, probably Asperger syndrome, causes him to function in a way that is both detrimental to the firm and its clients. Roman is an advocate of justice which is not always served in a courtroom. The plan was to ask for continuances in lieu of Jackson’s medical condition but Roman decides to tackle the cases instead which lands him in contempt of court.
Colin Farrell plays a young hotshot lawyer named George Pierce, a former student of Jackson who admires his old professor. He’s brought in by Jackson’s family to close out all the firm’s accounts when it becomes evident that Jackson won’t recover. Roman was under the impression that he was a full partner at the two-man firm, but the family argues otherwise, and he’s left unemployed.
Washington shines in an emotional scene at a civil-rights organization when he attempts to go back to his activist roots. Maya (Carmen Ejogo) interviews Roman who offers his decades worth of knowledge and expertise to the firm only to be told it’s a non-profit and most of the employees are volunteers. She invites him to speak to the volunteers and like everything else in Roman’s life it turns into a disaster.
After patiently waiting for Roman’s turn to shine, Gilroy heads towards the unethical and the film’s tone shifts. It’s an unexpected move that throws the narrative into a foreseeable outcome. The twist feels fraudulent although Denzel remains riveting.
Gilroy doesn’t reach the same plateau as he achieved with “Nightcrawler” but Washington is extraordinary in the film and Farrell delivers a first-rate performance.
(3 ½ stars)
Available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and Streaming on Tuesday 02.13.18