It’s easy enough to imagine the pitch meeting that led to the creation of David Dobkin’s The Judge: simply picture someone, anyone, it doesn’t matter who, standing in front of a loose assembly of Hollywood brass, spouting off something like, “he’s a judge, but he’s about to be on trial.” You can almost hear the sighs. “But Robert Downey, Jr. wants to star in it.” Cue clapping, the signing of a budget (is this how Hollywood pitch meetings go? no, but go with it) and lots of big smiles. The Judge! He’s a judge, but he’s about to be on trial! With Robert Downey, Jr.! It’s a can’t-miss!
Dobkin’s film certainly has good intentions, shoehorning in an emotional redemption story alongside a standard “hey, maybe you really can go home again” tale and the kind of legal procedural that would only ever play out on the big screen, but the results are less than impressive. Fresh off a slowly diminishing streak of wacky comedies like Wedding Crashers, The Change-Up and Fred Claus, Dobkin attempts to go for something approaching sincerity and drama with The Judge, yet he can’t quite capture the right tone, and the film wings between light dramedy and genuinely upsetting family drama. A consistent interest in picking the most obvious choice possible at nearly every turn ultimately proves to be the film’s most egregious downfall.
We’re keenly aware that Downey’s Hank Palmer is an asshole the first time we meet him, mainly because he’s sporting a slick hairdo, a bad attitude and a lax regard for personal space (he pees on David Krumholtz, who is mostly confined to appearing in scenes in a bathroom, so it’s hard to fault Downey for his purposely terrible aim). A prolific defense attorney, Hank doesn’t care too much about the people he represents, even though he knows they’re mostly guilty (sample line of dialogue: “innocent people can’t afford me”). Hank’s putting on a big show (his home life isn’t as great as he makes it out to be), a snappy play at being confident and in control, the kind of work that Downey can do in his sleep. The news that his beloved mother has passed away temporarily unnerves him, and Hank is soon heading back to his tiny hometown to say goodbye.
It’s not a happy homecoming, mainly because everyone in cute lil Carlinville, Indiana appears to hate big city Hank, especially his cranky pop Joseph (Robert Duvall, playing the eponymous judge) and his older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio). It will soon become clear why they’re all so disdainful of the guy, but that doesn’t actually matter straight off, because the night after Mama Palmer’s funeral, Joseph hits and kills a bicyclist who just so happens to be a murderer he convicted years earlier. What’s to blame for Joseph’s hit and run? Vengeance? Justice? Grief? Or is it something else entirely?
Bent on helping his father clear his name – and to defeat a slick special prosecutor (amusingly played by Billy Bob Thornton) – Hank sticks around to serve as Joe’s attorney. And to heal his family. And to learn about life. And some other stuff, maybe. You can probably guess most of what is going to happen, and the uninspired nature of nearly every frame and interaction (a big fight happens during a literal tornado, a long-held secret is revealed with thudding results, Super 8 film reminds people how they feel about each other) sinks The Judge before it even gets to trial.
The film is overstuffed with a strangely hefty number of subplots, any number of which could (and should) have been cut clean out in order to slim down the film’s bloated 140 minute runtime and craft a more streamlined film, including a bit centered on Hank’s high school sweetheart (Vera Farmiga, who is underused in terms of the demands of her part, even as she’s gussied up in vaguely insulting “white trash” garb) and the problematic portrayal of Hank’s sweet but slow brother (who is cast as the wise fool and permanent spouter of important, if obvious truisms). Duvall and Downey are good enough as is, and the actors work wonders when they’re allowed to simply be together and revel in each other’s talent. Downey and Duvall aren’t necessarily stressing any actor muscles here – Downey is still wry and snarky, Duvall is mercurial and moving, nothing more – but the pair is strong together.
Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is to blame for a constant steam of overlit shots, while composer Thomas Newman is at fault for crafting a tinkly, strangely upbeat score better suited for a romantic comedy. The rest of the film’s soundtrack is bizarrely rounded out by Bon Iver’s “Holocene” which, confounding enough, plays twice, and only during obviously emotional scenes. (The inclusion of Willie Nelson’s rendition of “The Scientist,” which plays over the credits, is definitely a step up.)
Final verdict? If The Judge is guilty of anything, it’s of wasting its few good ideas and a murderer’s row of talent, perhaps the misdemeanor of cinematic crimes. Bang your gavel elsewhere.
The Upside: Downey and Duvall exhibit strong chemistry, smaller scenes succeed at conveying emotional honesty, the return of a dirty-mouthed Downey (no, really, this is a legitimate highlight).
The Downside: Scattershot tone, an overstuffed plot, rambling narrative, overlit to the point of being blown out, an inappropriate score and an entirely predictable total package.
On the Side: Elizabeth Banks was also in the running to play the role that eventually went to Farmiga, while both Jack Nicholson and Tommy Lee Jones were considered for Duvall’s part.
Our review of The Judge originally ran during this year’s TIFF, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens in theaters this weekend.
Related Topics: Robert Downey Jr