THE JUDGE (2014)
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Emma Tremblay, Billy Bob Thornton, Leighton Meester, Dax Shepard, Ken Howard, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Grace Zabriskie, Denis O’Hare, Lenny Clarke and Sarah Lancaster.
Screenplay by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque.
Directed by David Dobkin.
Distributed by Warner Bros. 141 minutes. Rated R.
I’m quite certain that the makers of The Judge feel that they have created an important look at family dysfunction and the word of law in small town America. However, what they have created feels more like a not quite successful cinematic clone of a John Grisham novel.
Which in itself is not a bad thing. John Grisham is quite skilled in his own style of Southern Gothic legal thrillers. However, despite the fact that Grisham takes on some very weighty subjects, his books are not generally considered weighty tomes. More like stones that skip on top of a dark and murky pool of societal ills.
The Judge falls into the same trap – going under the assumption that it can even be considered a trap and not an editorial choice – and eventually the film seems to be much less important than its subject demands or even deserves.
Perhaps it is simply that director David Dobkin – best known for comedies like The Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus and The Change-Up – brings too light a touch to a screenplay that obviously wants to be taken oh so seriously. Or perhaps it is the fact that screenwriters Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque often seem to blur the line between morality and moralism.
The Judge wears its old-fashioned gravitas a bit uncomfortably, though. The generational war between an aging by-the-book judge (Robert Duvall) and his flashy, rule-breaking defense lawyer son (Robert Downey, Jr.) never quite settles into a rhythm, despite fine work by a terrific cast.
It is particularly gratifying to see Downey back in a serious role after several years of work in comic adaptations and light comedies – though honestly there is more than a hint of Tony Stark in his portrayal of slick and jaded lawyer Hank Palmer. However, Downey is in fine form here, effortlessly funny and at the same time conflicted and genuinely heartfelt.
Duvall’s character is harder to warm up to, but that fits the actor’s somewhat brusque, no-nonsense acting style. Judge Parker is related – at least thematically – with Duvall’s classic portrayal of Lt. Col. Meechum in The Great Santini. You can definitely see those two characters getting together for beers and not talking much.
There is a lot of fine acting going on here. In fact, the supporting cast is so deep that several big-name actors have little time or material to make an impression. For example, Billy Bob Thornton’s prosecuting attorney, though well-performed, is allowed almost no emotional shading. It is a completely one-dimensional character. Dax Shepard’s role as a country-bumpkin lawyer/antiques dealer is only in any way memorable because he has three (count ’em!) vomiting scenes. And Leighton Meester is also somewhat wasted in a two-scene McGuffin of a character.
The story revolves around Hank Palmer, after spending 20 years away from his tiny Indiana hometown, finally having to return for his mother’s funeral. Hank has stayed away for years because of all the ghosts at home – his emotionally distant dad, the older brother he left behind after causing a car accident which destroyed the brother’s big league baseball dream (Vincent D’Onofrio) and his mentally challenged younger brother (Jeremy Strong). Then there is Vera Farmiga as the one who got away, his former fiancée that he suddenly abandoned for his big city dream. (Literally, he supposedly went to a Metallica concert in Chicago one weekend and never went back.)
In the meantime, Hank’s life is in the big city is not as content as it appears at first glance. He may be rich, powerful, have an expensive house and car and a model-hot wife (Sarah Lancaster), but the work has made him glib, selfish and superficial and he’s in the middle of an ugly divorce and custody fight. Though he does not realize it, maybe he needs the slower pace of his small town roots.
The choice about whether to stay or go is taken from him when the judge is arrested for vehicular manslaughter. A former convict, the biggest mistake of the judge’s career on the bench, is found run down on the side of the road. The judge’s vintage Caddy has body damage and a bit of blood from the victim on its bumper. And the judge, who has been hiding the fact that he has terminal cancer from everyone, cannot remember what happened because of memory loss from chemotherapy.
As you can see, The Judge has a lot of balls it’s trying to keep in the air at once. The cold hard truth is, despite having some very interesting scenes and ideas, there is very little in the nearly two and a half hours of The Judge which is particularly surprising. And I’m not sure I buy into the film’s big city vs. small town preachiness.
However, if you like the slick legal thrillers of John Grisham, there is are a lot worse ways to spend your time than taking a seat in the courtroom of The Judge.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2014 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 10, 2014.