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The Judge: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD 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 Sanford 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)

Buy The Judge from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD • DVD • Instant Video

The courtroom drama largely disappeared from Hollywood after studios stopped adapting John Grisham's bestselling legal thrillers. The genre looked to make a return in The Judge, which arrived with all kinds of promise.
It opened in October, the month when serious awards contenders start rolling out on a regular basis. Further heightening expectations were the fact that it premiered weeks earlier at the Toronto International Film Festival, increasingly a showcase for the business' most prestigious fall fare, and that its lead role was filled by Robert Downey Jr., an actor who now undoubtedly has his pick of the best scripts around. All this simply set 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 (his daughter has never met her 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.

"The Judge" stars Robert Downey Jr. as Hank Palmer, a big shot city lawyer who defends his respected father back home on a shocking manslaughter charge.

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 long ago 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 as comic relief and a very mild variation on Downey's Tony Stark shtick, are mostly fruitless as well.

After years of estrangement, Hank (Robert Downey Jr.) turns back up to clean up Joseph's (Robert Duvall) messes in more than one way. Vera Farmiga unconvincingly plays a bleached blonde bartender, Hank's high school sweetheart turned townie.

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 taking sixth billing in a Tim Allen comedy again 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 indicated 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 octogenarian cannot take for granted, but it adds little to his long and largely superb résumé... except another Academy Award nomination, the seventh of his career. It makes Duvall at 84 the oldest male to become an acting category Oscar nominee. The result of deficient voter imagination and a Supporting Actor field with only four obvious contenders, Duvall's nod will come as bad news to those of you who make it a point to see as many of the Oscar-nominated films as you can before the ceremony. The Judge has no business being an Academy Award-nominated film.

Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) returns to the scene of the possible crime with his father (Robert Duvall), both hoping to find some clarity.

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, marketed this film in similar fashion, down to the poster fonts and color schemes. While 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. Though many who have seen the film have enjoyed it (as evidenced by the respectable 7.5 rating it presently holds on IMDb), not too many were lured in by Downey's star power to see the film in theaters. Its $47.1 million domestic gross was not enough to push it into profitability on a $50 M production budget. I suspect the underperformance was a byproduct of the strange combination of schmaltz and an easily avoided R rating (for language), two things that rarely go together.

With a month to go before Oscar night, The Judge hit home video this week in the Blu-ray combo pack reviewed here and a standalone DVD.

The Judge: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

2.40:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish, Portuguese)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish; BD-only: Portuguese
Not Closed Captioned; Video Extras Subtitled
Release Date: January 27, 2015
Suggested Retail Price: $35.99
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50 & DVD-9)
Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available as standalone DVD ($28.98 SRP) and on Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

The Judge looks the part of a prestige picture with its tasteful Lincoln-esque cinematography, which is nicely rendered in the Blu-ray's strong transfer. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio mix is also what you hope it to be on a brand new studio film, with dialogue remaining crisp and not being drowned out by Thomas Newman score or the sometimes groan-worthy needle drops.

Vincent D'Onofrio shows his Judge brothers his bald Kingpin head in "Inside the Judge." Dax Shepard conducts silly interviews of Robert Downey Jr. and other castmates in the ironically named "Getting Deep with Dax Shepard."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Judge's Blu-ray extras begin with an audio commentary by director David Dobkin. He has two things working against him from the get-go: speaking alone and being prouder of the film than he ought to be. He reveals personal experiences that inspired the screenplay
and explains different creative decisions (like the feces scene that almost kept Duvall from doing the movie). He is clearly passionate and quite defensive about the film, but unless you share that passion, this isn't an especially interesting track.

"Inside The Judge" (22:16) gathers Dobkin, Robert Downey Jr., his wife/producer Susan Downey, Vincent D'Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Robert Duvall, Dax Shepard, and Vera Farmiga for small group discussions of the film. Their spirited conversations are complemented by film clips and behind-the-scenes footage. It adds up to a solid making-of piece that departs from the norm.

"Getting Deep with Dax Shepard" (9:21) has the actor awkwardly interview castmates Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Robert Downey Jr. It's comparable to Zach Galifianakis' "Between Two Ferns" web series, but not nearly as funny. At least it tries to amuse and be creative.

A long deleted scenes reel preserves some unused moments from Robert Duvall's Oscar-nominated performance, like this extended graveside monologue. The father-son poster pose that serves as the Blu-ray combo pack's cover art also stands as the static menu image on both Blu-ray and DVD.

Finally, we get a long reel of deleted scenes (18:28). These include an extended version of the Judge alone addressing his wife's coffin, a bout of dementia, a scene in which Vera Farmiga's character punches Downey Jr., a moment of the prosecutor played by Billy Bob Thornton doing some courtroom coaching, and more house work and trial preparation.
Though it doesn't allow you to access individual deletions with ease, the cuts are also viewable with commentary over them which allows Dobkin to voice his appreciation of the actors' unused material and remorse about having to "kill his darlings."

The DVD, the same one available to buy on its own, only includes "Getting Deep with Dax Shepard" and not any of the more serious, substantial extras.

The Blu-ray opens with trailers for American Sniper and Jupiter Ascending. The DVD starts with those and then proceeds to advertise Horrible Bosses 2, Islands of Lemurs: Madagascar and Ron Howard's recently rescheduled In the Heart of the Sea.

The main menus play a bit of score over a wide reformat of the poster art image that serves as the cover here. Like other Warner Blu-rays, this resumes unfinished playback of the film, but nothing else and doesn't support bookmarking.

Inside the slipcovered eco-friendly keepcase, an insert supplies directions and a code for the Digital HD with UltraViolet included with your purchase.

Robert Duvall is The Judge. Or is he? Listen to the audio commentary to find out the real meaning of the title in director David Dobkin's mind.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Phony, saccharine, and a waste of first-rate talent, The Judge is the worst of the films nominated for the upcoming Academy Awards that I've seen. Given the cast assembled here and the inherent intrigue of legal dramas, it's almost tough to believe this could turn out as bad as it does. One can only wish the cast and director David Dobkin can find work better suited to their strengths.

Warner's Blu-ray combo pack serves up an expectedly excellent feature presentation plus three substantial hours of bonus features counting Dobkin's solo commentary. I would doubt my negativity if I had not seen the movie, so I understand if it sounds good enough on paper for you to give it a chance. Just don't say I didn't warn you!

Buy The Judge from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD / DVD / Instant Video

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Related Reviews:
New: Rudderless • Boyhood • This Is Where I Leave You • Fury • The Remaining
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
Directed by David Dobkin: Shanghai Knights • Fred Claus
The Verdict • The Rainmaker • The Firm • Sweet Home Alabama • The Conspirator

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Reviewed January 28, 2015.



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