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The Judge an Open (for 141 Minutes) and Shut Case

  • Jeffrey Huston Contributing Writer
  • 2014 10 Oct
<i>The Judge</i> an Open (for 141 Minutes) and Shut Case

DVD Release Date: January 27, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: October 10, 2014
Rating: R (for strong language including some sexual references, and some sexuality)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 141 min.
Directors: David Dobkin
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thronton, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dax Shepard, Jeremy Strong

When you have two powerhouse actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall at the center of a movie – one that allows them to play to both their individual strengths as well as spar off of each other's – that's an event. It’s special. Unfortunately for The Judge, a Grisham-like courtroom melodrama layered with even more familial melodrama, the material – which was developed by Downey – is utterly standard. The verdict of the case (along with father and son's relationship) may technically be in question, but as far as dramatic suspense goes – from where this is headed to how it'll get there – The Judge is pretty much an open and shut case.

Nevertheless, if the unending popularity of TV procedurals and legal dramas is any indication, this story's familiarity may prove as much of an asset to audiences as its stars. All the stock tropes are certainly here. A sudden death sends big city defense attorney Hank Palmer (Downey Jr, Iron Man) home to the small Indiana town where nothing ever changes (except eventually him, no doubt), the place he determined never to go back to, all while his marriage is falling apart. But the journey back – along with a conveniently-timed murder trial that forces Hank to represent his accused dad Joseph (Duvall, Get Low), a local judge and pillar of the community – sets Hank on a path towards reconciliation with his estranged father as family secrets long-buried are dug up and finally confronted. Yes, even on the stand while under oath.

Healing ensues, of course, but not until well after the obligatory fighting, shouting, screaming, blaming, crying, and ultimatums all play themselves out in one heated confrontation after another during the course of 2-plus hours. On the plus side it’s not as oppressive as all that, and it even clips along with the brisk intent to entertain, particularly since the script is crafted so precisely to showcase Downey’s popular persona of quick wit, affable sarcasm, and roguish charm. Sure, he’s a real jerk, but the hunky type that women want to fix (especially since Hank’s one solid relationship is with his daughter). He may be a slimy lawyer, but when those traits are used to put idiots in their place we can’t help but see his slick manipulation of people as a virtue.

Director David Dobkin (The Change-Up) avoids delivering it all with a heavy hand, thankfully, but it’s still an obvious one. The visual metaphors are about as subtle as a gavel, ranging from an image of father and son walking in opposite directions on an empty road to the moment when their most tumultuous confrontation literally takes place in the swirling violent winds of a brewing tornado.

Some of the laughs and sentiment are also cheap, personified in the adult autistic brother who's used solely for both purposes whenever the plot beats require one for relief. Credit Dobkin for reaching beyond his career’s previous grasp (vulgar comedies like Wedding Crashers and Fred Claus) and even for succeeding at a basic level, but this effort remains nothing more than a competently-crafted yet slowly-pitched softball right down the mainstream middle.

Suffice it to say there's an old high school sweetheart in the mix too who, despite being attractive and successful, still finds herself single so as to provide Hank with a love interest. But like Downey and Duvall, actress Vera Farmiga (The Conjuring) is a first-rate talent who elevates the stock nature of the role (which is to spark Hank's latent humanity while also calling him on his crap). It's unfortunate she’s only there to serve as an instigator for the protagonist’s arc rather than being a fully-fledged character of her own.

As for Duvall he delivers exactly as Downey does, giving us what we expect – and want – from him: a performance that ranges from the volatile to the tender, revealing both selfish flaws and a strong character, all done with a gruff naturalism that’s authentic and compelling. The two actors serve each other very well, even if their dynamic – hating each other because they’re so much alike; stubborn and bullheaded – is such a cliché. Billy Bob Thornton (The Astronaut Farmer) is also a welcome entry as the ruthless prosecutor; his formidable presence goes a long way in adding an air of suspense that the script and direction otherwise lack.

The whole construct of how the murder mystery and family dysfunction collide in the courtroom – where both end up on trial, one literally and the other figuratively – is clearly overcompensating for the script’s formulaic trajectory. This is a court case where all the juiciest details don't come out in pre-trial discovery or research but rather shockingly on the stand in front of a rapt courtroom that responds with the requisite gasps and whispers. It’s also where the most raw and emotional moments between father and son occur, from trust being betrayed to tear-inducing confessionals.

About the only thing that tempers this potboiler's mass appeal is also what keeps it from a PG-13 rating: a consistent string of R-rated profanities, along with the occasionally steamy (though not explicit) sexuality. This has all the marks of wannabe crowd-pleaser (complete with tying everything up in a sentimental bow), but its decidedly adult content will mean that the crowd it's pleasing will be smaller than it otherwise could have been with a less-restrictive rating that was so easily within its reach. Still, the edited-for-TV version will no doubt play in regular rotation on TNT for years to come.

For all that it is – both good and bad – The Judge is everything Downey and Dobkin wanted it to be as it’s the first film to be nurtured from page to screen by Team Downey. That's the new producing collaboration of Robert and his wife Susan, who together shepherded this property that Dobkin initially conceived. And while it may represent Dobkin's best work, it also ranks amongst Downey's safest. Where those two concepts meet is mediocrity.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Occasional consumption of alcohol in social settings.
  • Language/Profanity: Full range of profanities used throughout, with the F-word being the most common and virtually all others used at numerous times as well, including but not limited to a handful of instances where the Lord’s name is used in vain. Also the occasional use of crude language, vulgar profanities. One crude gesture. Adult language is a regular presence in the dialogue.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: A couple of scenes of very passionate making out; kissing, necking, groping, hands under clothes, bodies intertwined, etc.
  • Violence/Other: Many tense verbal confrontations. Some become physical, but not graphically violent. One person slaps another. A gruesome murder is described with detail. Several instances of vomiting (though used as a recurring gag for humor). One instance of defecating, due to severe illness. Another moment when one man urinates on another’s leg.

Publication date: October 10, 2014