A disappointing sophomore effort from Dan Gilroy, Roman J. Israel, Esq. follows Denzel Washington’s title character, an oddball, possibly autistic lawyer, as he finds himself caught up in a variety of professional and personal complications triggered by the ill health of his mentor. Writer/director Gilroy is very clearly going for the vibe of a low-key character study with Roman J. Israel, Esq., as the filmmaker delivers a mostly episodic narrative that’s ultimately more miss than hit – with Washington’s eccentric and often distracting performance certainly perpetuating the decidedly uneven atmosphere. (The actor’s usual charisma is significantly muted by his ongoing efforts at inhabiting the skin of this seriously off-the-wall figure.) It’s perhaps not surprising to note that the movie, as a result, suffers from an almost total lack of momentum that is, to put it mildly, problematic, and there’s consequently never a point at which one gets the impression or feeling that all of this is building towards something significant. Gilroy’s unfocused modus operandi paves the way for a strange midsection rife with underwhelming digressions, including a palpably ineffective stretch detailing a series of confrontations (eg Roman encounters an obnoxious activist, an aggressive cop, and a violent mugger within the space of about five minutes). And although there are a handful of entertaining, engaging stretches (eg Roman finally decides to get his life together), Roman J. Israel, Esq. is, by and large, a distressing misfire that’s hopefully just a minor speedbump from an otherwise promising filmmaker.
** out of ****