Denzel Washington plays a conflicted lawyer in a movie that is unsure of itself but still worth a look

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“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is effective as a character study, less so as a thriller, so it’s unfortunate that it pivots into the latter in its final act after becoming unsure of what to do with itself.

Still, Denzel Washington gives enough of himself to his quirky, morally conflicted lawyer that “Roman J.” is worth a day in court. Writer-director Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”) has a spark of an idea here, he’s just not sure where to take it. “Roman J.” feels rushed, pushed out ahead of its time, and the title character is deserving of more than the treatment he receives.

The film opens with words on a screen. Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Washington) is a lawyer who is suing himself and attempting to disbar himself from the human race for a mistake in judgment that conflicted with his entire belief system. It’s a riveting opener and not entirely emblematic of what follows, but it foreshadows the abrupt shifts in tone to come.

Israel is a relic of another era. He lives in modern day Los Angeles, but is straight out of the ’70s, with his teased out Afro and his baggy, out-of-style suits. His rickety headphones, meanwhile, look like he pulled them straight off of his Walkman and attached them to his iPod.

He eats peanut butter sandwiches — jars and jars of Jif are the only thing on the shelves of his apartment — and he’s able to rattle off obscure laws and legal codes like a sports nut listing statistics. He’s somewhere on the spectrum, perhaps living with Asperger’s Syndrome, although those words are never used. One character calls him “a bit of a savant,” another simply slams him as a “freak.”

Either way, Israel is an analog guy in a digital world. He works in the back office at a well-respected but small law firm, and when his boss suddenly slips into a coma, big-wig attorney George Pierce (Colin Farrell) comes in to close the office down. Pierce, all high coif and slick suits, has every intention of sending Israel home with a severance check. But when he catches a glimpse of Israel at work, he decides to hire him on at his firm.

It’s a rough transition, and Israel has a hard time finding his place at the office among the moneyed lawyers whom he considers sellouts. Outside of work he meets a young activist (Carmen Ejogo) who reminds him of his protester past; the script is unsure whether their pairing is romantic.

In fact, the script is all around unsure what to do with Israel, so it gives him a crisis of conscience. Facing an immediate financial burden, he abruptly decides to tank his moral code and cash in on a piece of privileged information at his disposal. Temporarily, it frees him, and it allows him to get out of those poorly fitting suits. It also gives Gilroy a path to the end, but big questions hover around his motivations, and they don’t jibe with the character we’ve come to know.

It’s a credit to Washington’s rock solid performance that we care as much as we do. There are layers to Israel that Washington exposes in little tics and mannerisms; he knows this character, perhaps even better than Gilroy does, and he grounds him in reality. You want to know more about his world.

Gilroy, meanwhile, is on a crash course with a finale that feels like he’s making his version of “Carlito’s Way.” Like in “Nightcrawler,” he has a keen sense of L.A., and shows a different side of the city than what is usually seen on screen. But he backs himself into a corner and writes an out like he was on deadline and trying to beat the clock. He should have asked for a continuance.

“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” gives us a strong lead character in a so-so movie. Even if the story is unsure of itself, Washington is worth the benefit of the doubt.

agraham@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2284

@grahamorama

‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’

GRADE: B-

Rated PG-13 for language and some violence

Running time: 129 minutes

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