Roman J. Israel, Esq: good Denzel Washington performance, frustrating film

Drama about a socially awkward lawyer who emerges from another era gets sentimental but doesn’t engage us emotionally


ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. (Dan Gilroy). 129 minutes. Opens Wednesday (November 22). See listing. Rating: NN


You’re going to hear plenty of celebratory awards talk about Denzel Washington’s performance, and it won’t be entirely undeserved. The actor – who could be easily accused of playing different variations of the same characters – is great in a role so far from anything we’ve seen him play before.

Washington’s Roman J. Israel, Esquire (he insists on that last part) is a lawyer accustomed to drafting paperwork in the backroom while his partner makes the public appearances in court. There’s a reason for that. He’s socially awkward, bumbles about conversations, and looks people straight in the eye while tripping over blunt truths.

He’s pretty much been stashed in a closet since the Civil Rights era and is now thrust into the public at large when his partner dies, his idealism withering away with every cynical, morally compromising decision he has to make to survive.

The set-up is akin to any time travel movie where a relic confronts modern times. Here, the Civil Rights movement meets Black Lives Matter in a SJW movie that wears its wokeness on Washington’s ill-fitting sleeve.

Writer/director Dan Gilroy makes thoughtful, considered points about recent Black activism, its different variations and the contradictions between them.

But he throws it all into a confused and frustrating mix that gets sentimental but doesn’t emotionally engage.

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