Denzel Washington, the producer, has developed a knack for finding great roles for Denzel Washington, the actor — last year in “Fences” (which he also directed), this year in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” Washington’s quirky performance shines brightly, but in a movie that otherwise doesn’t present an especially strong case for rushing out to see it.
Washington plays the title character, a “Rain Man”-like legal savant — it’s never mentioned, but he clearly appears to be on the spectrum — who has toiled for decades in obscurity, the silent partner of a civil-rights titan who served as the public face of their two-man firm. While his boss made showy court appearances, Roman devoted himself to writing briefs, taking advantage of an encyclopedic knowledge of the penal code.
When his collaborator is stricken by illness, Roman’s world is abruptly turned upside down, thrusting him into uncomfortable situations, or at least, venues where he’s ill-equipped to deal with the required protocols and niceties.
“I don’t have the patience for the butchery that occurs here,” he says during what should be a perfunctory court appearance, raising the ire of the judge.
Forced to find work elsewhere, Roman awkwardly links up with George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a slick, fast-talking protégé of his boss. That comes after offering himself up to Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo), an activist who is intrigued by his passion and legacy — his meager apartment is adorned with pictures of Muhammad Ali and Angela Davis — but professionally unable to help him.
Out of desperation, Roman also embarks on an ill-advised enterprise, one that threatens to have serious consequences — not a surprise, given that the story begins with the character at his wits’ end, before flashing back three weeks to explain how he reached that juncture.
Sporting a bushy afro and speaking in rapid, staccato sentences, Washington quickly buries his movie-star baggage beneath the abundant tics of this role. When Roman ventures to the beach and delicately wades out into the ocean, he has the convincing look of a child experiencing a sensation for the first time.
Farrell and Ejogo generally triumph over their thinly outlined roles, but the movie — written and directed by Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”) — is almost entirely Washington’s show. And while that will surely again put him in the conversation for awards hardware, it’s in the service of a movie so transparently devoted to that prospect as to possess relatively little heft beyond it.
“Purity can’t survive in this world,” Roman laments at one point, a melancholy commentary on the current times that appears equally applicable to a movie as singly and steadfastly devoted to its central objective as “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”