Film Review – The Judge
Watching The Judge proves to be a singularly frustrating experience. On the one hand, the film features an array of some of the finest film actors possible, who are all doing yeoman-like work and create genuine chemistry. Unfortunately, all of that great work is torpedoed by an incredibly predictable script and directing that telegraphs every genuine moment being created on screen. Whether it’s having every emotional beat overly punctuated by obvious cues in the score, camera angles that steal liberally from better courtroom dramas to create dramatic effect, or characters that blurt their motivations in simple declarative statements, it’s like the creators of this film don’t trust the audience to feel the impact of what the actors are doing. They have to hammer it all home with a very on-the-nose tone.
Robert Downey Jr. stars as Hank Palmer, a big-city defense attorney whose rapid-fire speech patterns and questionable ethics have given him a lucrative career defending those who are clearly guilty. On the eve of yet another big courtroom triumph, this cocksure character is called back home to the small Indiana town he escaped years before to attend his mother’s funeral. Long estranged from his family of two brothers (Jeremy Strong and the perennially undervalued Vincent D’Onofrio), he also must spend a few days in the company of his cold, distant father, Joseph, played by screen legend Robert Duvall. The eldest Palmer is The Judge of the title. He has been holding court in their hometown for over 40 years. He values his profession and the law above all else. He has a reputation for being tough, but caring, to all of those in his courtroom. Yet he doesn’t share any of his compassion for his sons, in particular, Hank. There is a long history of his quizzing his sons instead of talking with them. The departed mother was the caregiver in the family. Judge Palmer was the strong, but silent type.
On the evening after the funeral, Joseph goes out for a drive on a rainy night. The next day, his sons discover suspicious dents on the car and the police arrest him for a hit-and-run that he doesn’t seem to remember. Of course, Downey’s character must eventually defend his estranged dad. And along the way they will reconnect, fight, learn to love and respect each other. All of that can be seen coming a mile away.
This insanely good cast is this film’s greatest strength. Downey and Duvall have real sparks as family members who can’t communicate without fighting. They really know how to work a scene. Duvall, in particular, is stellar. His line readings are never boring. When he admits to some painful truths about himself, he chokes on the words a couple of times, but fights through them. And it is terrific to watch. There is a reason he is one of the most respected actors in the business. Downey is doing Downey at this point. One might criticize him for always having the same persona, the “Tony Stark-Pick Up Artist-Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” charming motor-mouthed rogue with the heart of gold. Firstly, that persona is incredibly entertaining. And, when used properly, variations on that type can be modulated to create a character in which you’re invested. To put it another way, in Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise may have been doing Tom Cruise, but we still end up caring about him. Downey has a similar method.
The rest of the cast is strong, as well. Strong as the younger brother who is mentally slow elicits empathy without being a cartoon of a disabled person. D’Onofrio as the older brother carries his lifetime of disappointment at not fulfilling the promise of his high school baseball stardom well in just the few scenes he has. Vera Farmiga appears as the (of course) high school ex-girlfriend of Downey’s. She fills in the gaps of her life with what little she is given to work.
Despite all of that going for it, this movie goes exactly where you expect it to go. Does Hank learn something about himself and soften as a person? Of course. While the Judge hires someone else to defend him at first, is Hank going to eventually be called upon to defend his father? Of course. Does the ex-girlfriend who stayed in town all these years still have a crush on Hank who is conveniently in the middle of a divorce and custody battle over his too-cute daughter? What do you think?
And even the honest emotions that are explored get beaten to death by Director David Dobkin. When Hank is watching old home movies featuring his departed mother, Bon Iver is suddenly on the soundtrack to underscore the wistfulness of the scene. When Hank makes a withering point in court while battling Billy Bob Thornton‘s zealous prosecuting attorney character, the camera angle is low shooting upwards with sunlight from the windows highlighting him. When a devastating admission is made on the stand during the trial, the crowded courtroom makes audible gasps and murmurs. It gets almost cartoonish, where they might as well be saying “rabble rabble rabble”. Even a scene that should be the emotional climax of the film, when Hank and Joseph shout at each other while finally airing all of their past disappointments in each other, can’t be left alone. That scene has to be set during a hurricane so that the surroundings literally reflect the volatility of the emotions. It’s absurd the level of underlining that is done with regard to the film telling us how to feel. (Also, following the rule that a lackluster movie shouldn’t go out of its way to remind the audience of better movies, don’t put Robert Duvall in a small town courthouse for too long because To Kill a Mockingbird, this ain’t).
Watching expert actors work their craft is worthwhile. It’s too bad it isn’t all in service of a better movie. I judge The Judge to be watchable, but wholly predictable.