The decline and fall

Denzel Washington hasn’t lost a step in his latest role.

Denzel Washington hasn’t lost a step in his latest role.

Rated 4.0

Denzel Washington wins statues for going big, but he’s at his best in intimate moments. He can turn down the volume without sacrificing his dynamism, and perhaps no other actor in the sound era has proved so adept at defining their characters through miniature gestures and expressions. One of the last true movie stars, Washington is so casually great that he often obliterates co-stars and overwhelms plots, and the lion’s share of his starring vehicles succeed as character studies first and as movies second.

Case in point: Roman J. Israel, Esq., the latest film from Nightcrawler writer-director David Gilroy, and an only slightly less seedy look at Los Angeles’ underbelly. Washington simultaneously anchors and elevates this solid if obvious legal drama, showily disappearing into the title role of a sad-sack civil rights-era relic getting his first real taste of temptation. In this story about the decline and fall of Roman’s moral compass, Washington gets ample opportunity to layer his performance with subtly scene-stealing mannerisms.

With his pugnacious and socially awkward personality, untamed hair, bulky clothes, big belly, oversized eyeglasses, omnipresent earphones and savant-like legal knowledge, Washington practically drowns in character-building props and tics, yet it all harmonizes. He even gives Roman a distinctive walk, a loping, straight-backed slouch that perfectly combines the character’s simultaneous feelings of defiance and defeat into a single stride. As a character, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a non-stop thrill ride of actor choices.

As for Roman J. Israel, Esq., the film: it’s a decent morality play, although certainly a step down in quality (if not preachiness) for Gilroy from Nightcrawler. The “man behind the curtain” at a small legal defense firm drowning in debt, Roman gets forced out of his rut when the face of the firm suffers a debilitating heart attack. Out of work and unable to eat his convictions, Roman accepts an offer from high-priced hotshot George Pierce (Colin Farrell), but quickly proves to be out of his element in a corporate environment.

Faced with the failure of his own ideals, the unconquerable corruption of the legal system, the loneliness of his life and the impending death of his moral mentor, Roman makes a desperate and dangerous decision to line his own pockets at the expense of a client. As Roman gets his first taste of the good life, his fortunes at the firm also take an ironic turn for the better, but dark forces start to circle.

Despite a strong lead character and performance, the film occasionally gets disjointed and unfocused, and Gilroy structures the narrative in a way that eliminates most of the surprise. Meanwhile, a subplot featuring Carmen Ejogo as an activist who takes an inexplicable shine to the paunchy lawyer was clearly intended to humanize Roman, but feels forced and flat. In the end, the film is so focused on defining and studying Washington as Roman that there isn’t much air left.