Denzel Washington bags an Oscar nomination as a lawyer in this conceptually confused version of Philadelphia.
The usually effortless Washington, out of his comfort zone like Donald Trump doing a Halloween meet-and-greet or Theresa May doing anything, plays the eponymous lawyer with a gormless expression and hair-and-glasses combo that recalls Ricky Gervais in When The Whistle Blows. A legal genius and civil rights advocate, Roman is lured to a corporate law firm by a slick-haired Colin Farrell, where he sells out faster than Britney Spears at Scarborough. And it’s just as baffling.
This is Dan Gilroy’s second feature after the sensational Nightcrawler, another film about a maverick oddball entering the business world and their confrontations with morality. At its best, Roman J. Israel, Esq. shows glimpses of its predecessor, hinting at the neo-noir thriller this should have been. But those glimpses are lost between an irreconcilable mismatch of genres and tones that leave you fantasising about watching Philadelphia while Gilroy works on his Kraft.
That frustratingly uncertain tone is compounded by his verbose and literal screenplay, and a plot that’s as badly put together as Roman’s ill-fitting suits. As the film’s token woman, Carmen Ejogo’s role is the same as it was in both Selma and Born to be Blue, which is solely to say nice things about the man. The man in this case is unconvincing in manner and behaviour, burying Washington’s natural charisma under Oscar-bating affectations and comedy glasses. The Philadelphia may be off but there’s ham to go around.