Is it possible to make a vanity project built almost solely around the idea of not displaying any vanity? The bizarre new Denzel Washington legal drama “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” makes viewers answer that question.

Washington stars as the titular character, a lifelong social-justice crusader who has served as the legal adviser for another attorney who has always handled the actual court hearings in a nonstop array of public defender cases. But when his boss has a sudden heart attack, Israel is told explicitly by the firm’s secretary to only ask for continuances that would enable the lead attorney and his clients to appear at a future date.

Under no circumstances is Israel supposed to handle the court hearings himself, with the reason rooted in his extremely awkward demeanor, bad suits, unkempt Afro and giant nerd glasses. While his odd behavior is never fully explained by writer-director Tony Gilroy’s script, various characters speculate that he’s either autistic or has another form of behavioral disorder.

His behind-the-scenes insights have always been genius, but as he steps front and center, a series of disasters unfold. He mouths off to every judge or bailiff in sight about the inequities of the system and advises clients to plead in ways that don’t match their best interests. Soon he finds that one of his mistakes has led to a tragedy.

Israel’s attempts to make things right lead to even shakier ethical territory, with him spiraling into stranger and ever more paranoid behavior. Whether he can find a clear path to rectifying the situation forms the thrust of the film’s plot, but the problem is that Gilroy and Washington are so determined to serve up a character study that the main plot and pacing suffer throughout.

After spending the last several years doing mostly action movies, Washington is clearly trying to stretch his acting muscles again. The two-time Academy Award-winner (“Glory,” “Training Day”) delivered a masterful, Oscar-nominated performance as the lead character in “Fences” last year but has otherwise been mired in genre movies like “The Magnificent Seven” reboot and the film reinvention of the 1980s TV crime series “The Equalizer” that provide a fun paycheck but are fundamentally beneath his talents.

Teaming up with Gilroy — whose last film, “Nightcrawler,” was my choice for best film of 2014 — was an intriguing choice that sparked great anticipation in this reviewer. “Nightcrawler” was a riveting thriller that also provided the most stinging and insightful satire of the Los Angeles local TV news scene this side of Don Henley’s classic song “Dirty Laundry.”  It was a wild, utterly unpredictable film that had me on the edge of my seat throughout, as it followed an independent cameraman racing through the streets of Los Angeles at night in pursuit of the most hideous crime scenes and car crashes he could shoot for profit when they aired on the local news.

Yet “Israel” is going for a completely different tone. Gilroy and Washington both profess to be devout Christians and prayer partners, exchanging prayer requests and meeting up to discuss their faith on a regular basis.

That fact inspires the title and lead character’s name, which are rooted in Biblical symbolism referring to Romans, Jews and Israel. While Gilroy has spoken about this, it doesn’t have a direct correlation to the film’s meandering storyline.

Rather, the film just wanders about, thinking that it’s more interesting than it actually is. Washington showboats throughout, his appearance screaming, “Look at me! I need another Oscar!” His performance is full of nervous tics and mood swings that don’t amount to much — just like the movie overall.  Grade: C

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Stars: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson

Length: 115 minutes

Directed by: Martin McDonagh

Rating: R

A stunning character-driven tale of a fearless mother on a righteous quest for justice against the mysterious figures who raped and murdered her teen daughter, “Billboards” could be the film to beat in this year’s Oscar race. Mixing mystery, powerful drama and shockingly funny dialogue, McDonagh has crafted an instant classic that will likely be up for Best Picture, Screenplay, Director, Best Actress, two Supporting Actor nominations and beyond. It’s strictly for adults, but an absolute must-see.  Grade: B

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp

Length: 115 minutes

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Rating: PG13

This remake of the 1974 Oscar-winning hit movie and depiction of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel is superb filmmaking on every imaginable level: the score, cinematography and performances are all stunning. The final twist is also thoroughly unexpected, while also lending the film a gravitas that most Hollywood mysteries lack. A major contender for this  year’s Oscars.  Grade: A

DADDY’S HOME 2

Stars: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, John Lithgow

Length: 100 minutes

Directed by: Sean Anders

Rating: PG13

This sequel to the 2015 smash follows Ferrell and Wahlberg as a father and stepfather who overcame their comical competition for their kids’ attention. This time, they’re ridiculously close friends, but the arrival of Wahlberg’s macho monster dad (Gibson) and Ferrell’s touchy-feely father (Lithgow) creates new, fairly hilarious complications. A lot of great subtle commentaries on the state of families and our obsession with cellphones amid the slapstick.  Grade: B

THOR: RAGNAROK

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston

Length: 130 minutes

Directed by: Taika Waititi

Rating: PG13

The third in the “Thor” trilogy is an utter blast, cranking up the action and laugh lines to nonstop entertaining levels that make this better than the first two combined. Star Chris Hemsworth should be an interantional superstar, period, but this is a showcase of swaggering movie stardom at its finest. Cate Blanchett adds fun evil to the mix as the sister he has to team up with brother Loki to bring down.  Grade: A

 

Capsule Reviews

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Stars: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson

Length: 115 minutes

Directed by: Martin McDonagh

Rating: R

A stunning character-driven tale of a fearless mother on a righteous quest for justice against the mysterious figures who raped and murdered her teen daughter, “Billboards” could be the film to beat in this year’s Oscar race. Mixing mystery, powerful drama and shockingly funny dialogue, McDonagh has crafted an instant classic that will likely be up for Best Picture, Screenplay, Director, Best Actress, two Supporting Actor nominations and beyond. It’s strictly for adults, but an absolute must-see.  Grade: B

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp

Length: 115 minutes

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Rating: PG13

This remake of the 1974 Oscar-winning hit movie and depiction of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel is superb filmmaking on every imaginable level: the score, cinematography and performances are all stunning. The final twist is also thoroughly unexpected, while also lending the film a gravitas that most Hollywood mysteries lack. A major contender for this  year’s Oscars.  Grade: A

DADDY’S HOME 2

Stars: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, John Lithgow

Length: 100 minutes

Directed by: Sean Anders

Rating: PG13

This sequel to the 2015 smash follows Ferrell and Wahlberg as a father and stepfather who overcame their comical competition for their kids’ attention. This time, they’re ridiculously close friends, but the arrival of Wahlberg’s macho monster dad (Gibson) and Ferrell’s touchy-feely father (Lithgow) creates new, fairly hilarious complications. A lot of great subtle commentaries on the state of families and our obsession with cellphones amid the slapstick.  Grade: B

THOR: RAGNAROK

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston

Length: 130 minutes

Directed by: Taika Waititi

Rating: PG13

The third in the “Thor” trilogy is an utter blast, cranking up the action and laugh lines to nonstop entertaining levels that make this better than the first two combined. Star Chris Hemsworth should be an interantional superstar, period, but this is a showcase of swaggering movie stardom at its finest. Cate Blanchett adds fun evil to the mix as the sister he has to team up with brother Loki to bring down.  Grade: A

BAD MOMS CHRISTMAS

Stars: Mila Kunis, Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell, Christine Baranski

Length: 104 minutes

Directed by: Jon Lucas and Scott Moore 

Rating: R

This sequel to the surprise 2016 hit about suburban moms who decided to rebel against the demands of perfection tones some of the original’s excessive raunch down while adding some heartfelt moments. The arrivals of ace veterans Baranski, Cheryl Hines and Susan Sarandon as the moms they have conflicts with elevates this to make it one of the funniest movies of the year.  Grade: A