Harare, Zimbabwe(News of the South)-It stars Denzel Washington, who gives a tremendous performance as a lawyer, perhaps with Asperger’s syndrome, whose tidy life is thrown into turmoil. You can’t stop watching him — and you can’t stop wishing he didn’t have to work so hard to keep the story together once it starts branching out in different directions.

 

Washington plays the title character, who hasn’t set foot in the courtroom in years. Instead he toils behind the scenes, a legal savant — he has the entire California legal code committed to memory. But when his boss (Roman calls him a partner, but his little nook of an office is a dump, while his boss’s is a palace) has a stroke, Roman is forced back into the courtroom — for about five minutes.

It’s a disaster; he can’t keep his mouth shut and finds himself in contempt. It’s not long before George Pierce (Colin Farrell, also excellent), a high-priced, high-powered lawyer who has long admired Roman’s boss, swoops in to settle accounts, landing Roman on the street.

 

His search for work is sometimes funny, often sad. Roman is stuck in time, somewhere in the 1970s, maybe, wuth his Afro and his blocky suits. And he simply doesn’t know how to relate to people.

 

But there’s another side of him. Back in the day, Roman was an activist. He probably thought of himself as a revolutionary. This comes to the fore after an unsuccessful job interview at a civil-rights nonprofit organization run by the idealistic Maya (Carmen Ejogo). It’s the classic case of her seeing something in Roman that everyone else misses.

 

Almost everyone. George swoops back into the picture, recognizing Roman as a one-man research team, and he won’t have to pay the only member much.

 

When he sticks to the books, he’s a godsend. When he strays outside his preset parameters, he can cause trouble, for himself, for clients and for George’s firm. An ethical dilemma leads to a change in his lifestyle — without revealing too much, he’s soon wearing bespoke suits and trades in his dumpy flat for a luxury furnished apartment. He fits in about as well as you’d think. It’s not him. But what is?

 

Maya asks him to speak to her volunteers. That, too, goes awry. But she’s inspired. One of the best scenes in the film involves Maya calling Roman and asking him if he wants to go to dinner. Roman is instantly thrown into emotional overdrive. Tonight? Tomorrow night? Tonight? When? Maybe tomorrow night?

 

Washington plays it just right, as he does throughout. One more annoying question and the spell would be broken. But it’s not.

 

That’s mostly to do with Washington. Writer and director Dan Gilroy, whose “Nightcrawler” was so sharp, here lets his story wander. It’s difficult to know, even with Washington’s powerhouse performance, how we’re supposed to feel about Roman. At times he’s an idealistic hero. At others he’s taken in by greed. Which side will win out?

 

This is understandable, in some respects. The changes in his life have forced Roman to confront the world in ways he never has before — or at least hasn’t in a long, long time. But if Roman were played by anyone other than Washington, we’d give up on caring what becomes of him and his story long before the end of the overlong 2 hours and 9 minutes running time has expired.

 

Luckily, he isn’t played by anyone else. Washington creates such a compelling, fully formed character — and one different from the strong, commanding types he often plays — that we do care. Just not as much as, in a more-focused story, we could.



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