Director: David Dobkin
Writers: Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque
Stars: Robert Downey, Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio
Release date: October 10th, 2014
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Running time: 142 minutes
Best part: The winning performances.
Worst part: The underdeveloped sub-plots.
In one of legal drama The Judge‘s many courtroom scenes, our ‘antagonist’, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) delivers a line which proverbially sums up the movie. Dealing with a deadbeat defendant refusing to pay child support, the second-billed character takes away the keys to his new pick-up truck and gives them to the pregnant, white trash plaintiff. As the man complains, Judge Palmer stops him and says: “You’re standing in one of the last great cathedrals in this country, built on the premise that you and you alone are responsible for the consequences of your actions”.
Oddly enough, this momentous line encompasses The Judge‘s positives and negatives. On the one hand, there has been a lot of love poured into the movie’s production and distribution. Shortly before its release, critics and audiences were given hope. With each new image and trailer, our anticipation levels grew over the prospect of Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr. earning serious Oscar contention. In addition, Downey, Jr. and Duvall made for interesting interviewees. So, how does the final product compare to our overwhelming expectations? Sadly, not so well. Compared to 2014’s other Oscar hopefuls, The Judge doesn’t do enough to guarantee statuettes. However, if judged on its own, the movie delivers enough positives to scrape by. The story, despite being encapsulated by Duvall’s character, does not centre around the veteran performer. Instead, we get Robert Downey, Jr. playing Tony Stark playing a whip-smart lawyer. As one of Chicago’s most valuable defense attorneys, Henry “Hank” Palmer (Downey, Jr.) knows the ins and outs of the judicial system like no one else. Dodging morally-sound prosecutors left and right, this big-shot lawyer – whilst defending an infamous insurance scammer – gets the shock of his life. After learning of his mother’s death, he packs an overnight bag and heads straight for the modest town of Carlinville, Indiana. Juggling a messy divorce, a young child, and a valuable case, Hank doesn’t plan on staying too long after the funeral.
The Judge‘s central conceit revolves around an ethically-inconsistent, big-city lawyer and his law-abiding father. Joseph, known to everyone in town as “Judge”, is a friendly citizen and true professional. At the wake, everyone gives Joseph a big, ol’ hug. Hank simply shakes his hand and slips back into the shadows. However, after Joseph becomes a hit-and-run murder’s prime suspect, Hank agrees to stick around. So, why do they hate each other so much? This question should have been the movie’s biggest concern. With two talented A-listers at the helm, the movie hinges on their stellar reputations and likeable personas. In fact, aided by their spirited back-and-forths about the past, present, and future, the movie excels whenever they drop their guards to shout at one another. One scene, in which Hank and Joseph conduct a shouting match whilst a record-breaking storm screeches through town, is worth the price of admission. However, I’m going to give Hollywood some advice: for the love of God, make shorter movies again! Pushing The Judge to a ridiculous 142-minute run-time, director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, Shanghai Knights), makes several easily avoidable mistakes. Like Wedding Crashers, most of drama revolves around meaningless and peculiar sub-plots. Here, the plot-threads include Joseph’s fight against cancer, Hank’s mentally-challenged brother (Jeremy Strong) and his Super-8 camera, his older brother(Vincent D’Onofrio)’s ruined baseball career, Hank’s re-connection with an old flame (Vera Farmiga), Hank butting heads with a local lawyer (Dax Shepard), the prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton), and a questionable hook-up (Leighton Meester).
“Everyone wants Atticus Finch until there’s a dead hooker in a hot tub” (Henry “Hank” Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.), The Judge).
Throwing intriguing ideas across multiple story-lines, The Judge reeks of desperation, self-consciousness, and carelessness. Throughout its hodge-podge story, the tone drastically switches every few minutes. Stalling its own momentum, the movie fails to add up to the sum of its parts. In addition, the movie doesn’t know what to say. Despite criticising Middle America’s wholesomeness, the movie unfairly condemns Hank for following making a living in the urban jungle. This Oscar-baiter, revelling in cliches, is an unremarkable concoction of A Few Good Men, Up in the Air, and Garden State. In fact, a wily filmmaker like Jason Reitman, Alexander Payne, or Jon Favreau would yell “objection” at its inconsistent pacing, undeveloped supporting characters, and irritating sub-plots. However, Dobkin makes several succinct directorial choices. Its visual flourishes – including Janusz Kaminski’s light-and-shadow-fuelled cinematography, Thomas Newman’s uplifting soundtrack choices (ranging from Willie Nelson to Bon Iver), and Mark Livolsi’s fluid editing – bolster certain moments whilst crafting an approachable glow. Like Jerry Maguire, the movie aptly centres around its most interesting character. The Judge – the first production from Downey, Jr. and wife Susan Downey’s production company, Team Downey – comes from good intentions. Downey, Jr., crafting one of Hollywood’s most successful comebacks, is charismatic as the cynical and pithy lead. Duvall, crafting one of Hollywood’s most inspiring careers, is brilliant in prick mode. Meanwhile, despite the lack of attention, Farmiga, D’Onofrio, and Strong deliver powerful turns.
As a homage to Hollywood’s best courtroom battles and familial dramas, The Judge strives to be relevant and award-worthy. Despite the gravitas, the story is summed up in one line: “Everyone wants Atticus Finch until there’s a dead hooker in a hot tub”. In fact, Downey, Jr. and Duvall do trim some fat. So, why is the movie still so long? As studio-driven Oscar bait, it unyieldingly becomes its own judge, jury, and executioner.