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Denzel Washington strains to play a neurotic lawyer in ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’

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Washington pounds the pavement in Roman J. Israel, Esq..
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Three stars

Roman J. Israel, Esq. Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo. Directed by Dan Gilroy. Rated PG-13. Now playing citywide.

As the title character in Roman J. Israel, Esq., Denzel Washington does some of the most strenuous acting of his lengthy career. Superficially, Roman, a crusading attorney with a background in civil-rights activism, seems like a natural fit; indeed, Washington played a similar role two decades ago in Philadelphia. This lawyer, however, is an almost agoraphobic misfit, deeply uncomfortable around other people. That's a huge challenge for such a relaxed, self-confident movie star. For the first time in a long while, you can really see how hard Washington is working. It's not a terrible performance, but the sweat is visible.

The film itself is equally labored. Having deliberately worked his way down the ladder of success over the years, in order to serve the truly needy, Roman, suddenly in dire straits, agrees to take a position at a bigger firm run by a morally ambiguous slickster (Colin Farrell). Our dorky hero's dogmatic ethical code immediately gets tested, but in a way that feels clumsily engineered by writer-director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler). It's intended as a portrait of festering corruption, but the moral of this cautionary tale amounts to: Don't get caught up in a convoluted, jury-rigged screenplay. And if you do, don't act so hard.

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