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The Judge Movie Review

The Judge (2014) movie poster The Judge

Theatrical Release: October 10, 2014 / Running Time: 142 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: David Dobkin / Writers: Nick Schenk (screenplay & story), Bill Dubuque (screenplay), David Dobkin (story)

Cast: Robert Downey Jr. (Hank Palmer), Robert Duvall (Judge Joseph Palmer), Vera Farmiga (Samantha Powell), Billy Bob Thornton (Dwight Dickham), Vincent D'Onofrio (Glen Palmer), Jeremy Strong (Dale Palmer), Dax Shepard (C.P. Kennedy), Leighton Meester (Carla Powell), Ken Howard (Judge Warren), Emma Tremblay (Lauren Palmer), Balthazar Getty (Deputy Hanson), David Krumholtz (Mike Kattan), Grace Zabriskie (Mrs. Blackwell), Denis O'Hare (Doc Morris), Sarah Lancaster (Lisa Palmer), Lonnie Farmer (Gus the Bailiff), Matt Riedy (Sheriff White), Mark Kiely (Mark Blackwell)

 

The courtroom drama largely disappeared from Hollywood after studios stopped adapting John Grisham's bestselling legal thrillers. The genre looks to make a return in The Judge, which arrives with all kinds of promise. It opens in October, the month when serious awards contenders start rolling out on a regular basis. Further heightening expectations are the fact that it premiered at last month's Toronto International Film Festival, increasingly a showcase for the business' most prestigious fall fare,
and that its lead role is filled by Robert Downey Jr., an actor who now undoubtedly has his pick of the best scripts around. All this simply sets you up for disappointment, because The Judge is not a film worthy of such excitement.

Downey plays Hank Palmer, a big city lawyer who excels at getting guilty criminals off scot-free. Questioned by an adversary about this life he leads in an opening scene, Hank claims he sleeps just fine at night in the luxurious estate in Chicago's suburbs that he, his wife, and their young daughter call home. In the next scene, Hanks asks a judge for a continuance, having just been informed his mother died.

Though Hank has been estranged for at least several years (the daughter has never met the grandparents on that side), the death is reason enough for him to return to his small hometown of Carlinville, Indiana, where his father, Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), has presided as judge for over forty years to widespread respect. Joseph shows less affection to his son than any others offering their condolences and Hank is all ready to escape this icy atmosphere. Then, Joseph's car is found to be severely damaged and police officers are viewing him as the prime suspect in the vehicular death of a local man that the titular judge knew and long ago sentenced to twenty years in prison.

In "The Judge", a hot shot lawyer (Robert Downey Jr.) defends his respected, long estranged father (Robert Duvall) against shocking murder charges.

Joseph claims to have no recollection whatsoever of an accident and there is reason beyond his sterling reputation to believe that: he has been undergoing chemotherapy for months as part of cancer treatment that now looks hopeless. Joseph hires C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard), a young, inexperienced attorney whose office sits above a shop where he appraises old furniture. You know better than to believe the old man will truly place his fate in the hands of this comic character shown nervously vomiting outside the courtroom no fewer than three times. Of course, Hank is far more qualified to defend his father and his taking the case gives the two an obvious opportunity to bury the hatchet.

Whereas Grisham's southern potboilers are driven by plot, suspense, and applications of the law, The Judge, an original screenplay attributed to director David Dobkin, Gran Torino's Nick Schenk, and newcomer Bill Dubuque, substitutes small-town sentimentality for those elements. Of course, there's a pretty high school sweetheart who got away (Vera Farmiga, not convincing us as a bleached blonde with a prominent arm tattoo). It's okay; he's going through a divorce after his wife cheated on him. There's also a prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton) who shows us he means business with a collapsible metal tumbler. As the middle of three sons, Hank also gets to reconnect with his brothers, the autistic Dale (Jeremy Strong) who's always documenting life on the family's old silent movie camera, and Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio), whose potential pro baseball career was derailed by a car accident involving Hank and recklessness.

The movie aims for feel-good tearjerker, but falls short of both of those designations. Its attempts at heartwarming, involving Hank's daughter (Emma Tremblay) and trying to heal old wounds, do not endear us. Its efforts to make us laugh, using the autistic brother for comic relief and a very mild variation on Downey's Tony Stark shtick, are mostly fruitless as well.

In Carlinville, Indiana, Hank (Robert Downey Jr.) reconnects with Samantha (Vera Farmiga), the high school sweetheart with whom he may have a daughter. Youngest Palmer brother Dale (Jeremy Strong) is an autistic amateur filmmaker supposed to draw laughs.

On paper, the film sounds amazing. Casting two age-appropriate heavyweights to play father and son alone generates anticipation. But The Judge is severely lacking the intelligence and excitement we expect of courtroom dramas. The case itself is somehow entirely without intrigue, even as Joseph's culpability remains in doubt.
By the time the verdicts are eventually read, you'll realize you don't much care either way whether or not the old man is found guilty, even if this is ostensibly what the entire story is hanging on.

Getting cast as Iron Man was reinvention of the highest order for Downey. Yes, his career was on the mend, with roles in films by the likes of George Clooney, David Fincher, and Richard Linklater. But the last time he was in a courtroom for fun or otherwise was Disney's 2006 remake The Shaggy Dog. It is impossible to imagine him again taking sixth billing in a Tim Allen comedy anytime soon. Since 2008, Downey has done three Iron Man movies, two Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and The Avengers. That's left him with enough time to show his comedy chops in mainstream hits Tropic Thunder and Due Date and to make just one "serious" movie in The Soloist, which flopped and deservingly so. As his commitment to Marvel Studios winds down and he approaches his 50th birthday, Downey has an opportunity to usher in a new phase of his long and very windy career.

The Judge, which assigns him his first executive producer credit, is not a promising start. The artificiality that pervades the film originates with Downey, who seems to phone in the part both as slick, successful Chicagoan and damaged son looking for validation back home. If Downey believes in the project as much as he has been indicating in promoting this film, he has a funny way of showing it in this unsympathetic turn.

Duvall, perhaps not too surprisingly, is better, but this is not a shining moment for one of cinema's most accomplished actors. The part seems to rely on the weight it assumes Duvall will bring, but at the same time, the often understated actor seems to let the material speak for itself. The results are a bit underwhelming, no matter how much feces gets smeared around in a bathroom scene that adds to the film's perplexingly prominent use of bodily excretions. From his small but crucial appearance as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird to his justly Oscar-nominated turn in the underrated A Civil Action, Duvall has been a part of some fine courtroom dramas. This one gives him visibility and prominent billing (two things an 83-year-old cannot take for granted), but it adds little to his long and largely superb résumé.

With this film, David Dobkin, whose past directing credits include Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus, and The Change-Up, tries to get serious. It is not a good fit for him, reminding one of a male version of Sweet Home Alabama.

Warner Bros. Pictures, the studio who released three of those profitable Grisham adaptations in the mid-'90s, is marketing this film in similar fashion, down to the poster fonts and color schemes. While I think there is definitely an audience for new Grisham-like movies (e.g. The Lincoln Lawyer), The Judge only looks the part and fails to engage in any of the same ways. With that said, schmaltz has its fans, as evidenced by a few scattered displays of sincere applause by the general public in attendance at my screening upon the overdue arrival of the end credits. The Judge probably won't win or be nominated for any awards, but it could sell a decent amount of tickets on the popularity of Downey and the sudden dearth of courtroom dramas. However, the combination of schmaltz and the easily avoided R rating (for language) seems counterintuitive and may hurt the film's commercial prospects.

Related Reviews:
Robert Downey Jr.: The Soloist • The Shaggy Dog (2006) • Zodiac • Chances Are • Iron Man 3 • Tropic Thunder • Sherlock Holmes
Robert Duvall: Jayne Mansfield's Car • The Godfather Trilogy • Apocalypse Now • Tomorrow • The Road • Four Christmases
Vera Farmiga: Bates Motel: Season One • The Conjuring • At Middleton • Orphan • The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Now in Theaters: Gone Girl • The Drop • The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them
Directed by David Dobkin: Shanghai Knights • Fred Claus
The Verdict • The Rainmaker • The Firm • Sweet Home Alabama • The Conspirator

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Reviewed October 10, 2014.



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