[Review] - The Judge

Courtesy of Village Roadshow Pictures 
A wise man once said, "Never half ass two things. Whole ass one thing." These are words that writers Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque should have paid more attention to when putting together The Judge, a film long championed as Robert Downey Jr's return to original drama after the better side of a decade in franchise contract badminton. In a time when far too many films are sequels, reboots, franchise installments and bio-pics, I champion a wholly original film. But by the time the credits role, the thing I'm thinking most about is how good Downey will be as Perry Mason.

The problem is, there are two distinct movies battling it out for run time supremacy, a run time straining reasonability because of the conflicting genres playing out. On one hand, there is a "prodigal son returns" story, involving lost loves and long held grudges while family dynamics shift under the weight of years of emotional repression. On the other hand is a Grisham-standard legal drama about a cocky defense attorney forced to defend a client he can't stand. Neither of these alone would have been overly original, but either of these alone might have seemed a more complete film. As it stands, The Judge is about a dozen cliches and half as many subplots too far over the line to be considered a great film. However, it is saved by fantastic performances from it's impressive and extended cast, especially from the veteran Duvall.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers which shouldn't be so morose.

It is hard to hate Robert Downey Jr. He has that quality about him that elevates the words coming out of his mouth. Hiss presence makes things better. He tends to fall into that category of movie star that I like the least, those that essentially play variations on themselves in every film their in (others in this category include Tom Cruise and Will Smith). That being said, I think more of him than the others, because of those moments in his films where it is obvious that, somewhere under all that bravado and panache, he does have skills. He can produce wells of emotion from seemingly out of nowhere, he does angry acting better than most of his peers, and my personal favourite move of his is his "revelation face." That moment when his internal thought process overrides his muscle reflexes, and a silent  ballet of discover takes place between his eyebrows and his cheeks.

As enjoyable as smug, playful, bantering, occasionally impressive Robert Downey Jr is, a film needs far more than just star appeal to ride the wave of success. What the Judge has working for it is a cherry picked and unexpected cast of top level performances. Vera Farmiga, Vincent D'Onofrio, Dax Shepard, Jeremy Strong, and Billy Bob Thornton all do the absolute best with the scant material they are given. It makes for a frustrating watch, because you so want them to have more to do. I was itching in my seat, hoping that Thornton and Downey would have a greater opportunity to face off against each other (and some casting director out there needs to recognize the potential in that pairing for a project down the road). I was particularly taken by the performances of D'Onofrio and Strong as Downey's brothers. But again, thanks to a sudden disappearance in the film's second act, and an under use in the third, these performances are strained in their usefulness.

The other actor who gets any amount of material to work with, consistently, and is allowed to build an emotional relationship with the audience, is Robert Duvall, who is the true star of the picture. His portrayal of the deeply flawed Hank Palmer is the saving grace of the film. In a film ridden by cliches, Hank manages to stand out by being a deeper creation. He seems honest, in that he recognizes but is unwilling to admit that he is guilty of being human. His life is a honeycomb of mistakes, all of which haunt him in entirely different ways. And he is so old and set in his ways, that despite his best intentions, he is unable to avoid returning to his established patterns. It doesn't just make him vulnerable, it makes him tragic, and drama needs good tragedy.

The real tragedy is the rest of the film, which seems like it was written out of a film cliche Mad-Lib. There isn't a plot device at work here that hasn't been over used many times, making the majority of the film predictable and, well, lazy seeming. There is one genuinely enjoyable subplot, involving Downey's high school sweetheart, and one unexpected twist in a powerhouse finale that takes place in a packed court room, but is all about Downey and Duvall working off one another. That aside, the film shows little sign of originality. The dead mother that brings the lost son home, the mentally handicapped younger brother who won't have a place in the world once his parents are gone, the professional success and personal failure of a life of a high powered attorney, the rediscovery of true purpose after returning to the backwater he couldn't wait to escape from. It is all so very tired.

The thing is, for all the predictability, I found myself genuinely interested in the relationship drama that the movie occasionally gets around to. The dynamic between Downey and his brothers, Downey and his ex girlfriend, Downey and his father is where the film rides highest. This is mostly because, these are the moments when the actors are able to let their skill elevate the characters above the material. An onion of a film, where layer after painful layer is peeled back from Henry Palmer, is engaging because it doesn't rely on overt structure. It's all about interaction. With the right chemistry between the cast, it feels less orchestrated because the revelations seem organic and genuine. The most engrossing scenes in the film are those where there is very little being said. Downey chasing Duvall out of a cellar into a tornado, or Downey silently spinning a chair say more and say it better than most of the dialogue.

The legal stuff is just that: legal stuff. It's nothing that hasn't been down over and over on David E. Kelley TV series, John Grisham novels and most obviously, Law & Order. It's thin. It lacks any real weight. The "mystery" of it all isn't inspired. The most credit that can be given to it is that it isn't that much of a mystery. In fact, I have to give the film an appropriate amount of congratulations for not attempting to manufacture some absurd and literal "get out of jail free card." But the court room scenes are dull through standardization. I don't care how much of a cowboy prosecutor Billy Bob is, I don't feel for Dax Shepherd's nervous novice, and I certainly don't want to sit through another voir dire selection.  And worse than all that, it feels so tacked on. Downey already returns to his home town to attend his mother's funeral. He already reestablishes connections to friends and family, he already enters into all of the natural conflicts that follow him through the film, and he is already emotionally compromised. But the writers get the funeral out of the way tickety-boo, and then have to find a way to keep him in town. Perhaps if the film were scaled back and focused just on the weekend of his obligation, it would be a tighter and more engaging film. The legal aspects only distract from the better film that could exist here.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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