It's been awhile since I've so enjoyed watching Denzel Washington on screen, and for that I am thankful to Roman J. Israel Esq. at least. Truthfully I hadn't kept up with Denzel's career, even though I used to enjoy him very much, since around the time he won his Oscar for Training Day, which was not a film I enjoyed at all - since then it had started to feel like he'd gotten kind of lazy with his acting, relying on the same screaming intimidating schtick. (Honestly he'd earned some laziness by that point in his career - it's the same thing that happened to Pacino and Ford and De Niro, of course.) The trailer for Israel grabbed my attention, then - this looked like something different. Smaller, for Denzel. And when I saw it was from Dan Gilroy, who turned out Jake Gyllenhaal's maybe career best in Nightcrawler, I signed up, mediocre reviews be damned.
Happily Denzel's not the problem with Roman J. Israel Esq - not in the slightest. He gives a fine, lived-in performance as a civil rights lawyer deflated by years upon years of Sisyphean activism that's kept him toiling in the shadows, trapped in a shitty apartment, the same routine worn as thin as his receding hairline. No, the first hint that it wasn't him that was the problem but actually the script came amid that routine - it's the sandwiches, man. We see him making the same PB&J sandwich time and again beside an entire wall of peanut butter and jelly containers and, while not film destroying in itself, it raised a red flag - it's a character affectation that's showy and rings false; you can already tell that this is a screenwriter directing, in love with that quirk, but it tells us next to nothing about the character. It's just there.
Those things get worse as the movie rambles along. Quirks and affectations of story-telling pile up, getting int he way, until the last half an hour of the movie turns truly inexplicable and lsoes sight of everything that had been making this fine character study worth watching. Gilroy really gets in his own way with this one - none of the propulsive mean-spirited sheen of Nightcrawler is here to carry Roman J towards meaning; it just becomes this sad jumble of ideas buried beneath a pile of peanut butter sandwiches, gasping for air.