The Judge is a slickly built procedural drama that only barely maintains the interest of the audience; through two wry, bordering on satirical, performances by Robert Downey Jr. and Billy Bob Thornton. A film strictly for the lovers of Inspector Morse orMidsummer Murders, the extremely over-length running time and clichéd elements are unlikely to entertain other audiences.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: David Dobkin
Screenplay: Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque, and David Dobkin.
Runtime: 141 minutes.
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton.
Plot: Hank Palmer is a soulless criminal defence lawyer, the best and most expensive in the country, but hit hard by the sudden death of his mother and a need to return to the country town he left behind for her funeral. Once there he is quickly embroiled in old feuds; particularly with his larger-than-life father and local judge, Joseph. But things take a turn, when Joseph is accused of falling off the wagon and mowing down a local criminal in his car one night. Hank has to stick around, and do his best to protect his self-destructive father.
Review: Whatever they paid Robert Downey Jr. to appear in this clichéd procedural, I suggest the studio doubles it – as his wry, fast-talking performance single-handedly saves The Judge from being just about the blandest, least original film you’ll see this year.Downey plays city slicker and criminal defender Hank, a man who has defined himself in contrast to his small-town, righteous justice father Joseph. The two haven’t spoken for years, due to an incident in the past that is dutifully explained in detail in the third act of the film, until Hank is called back to attend the funeral of his mother. Intent on leaving as quickly as possible, he’s held in place by a rekindled romance with a teenage love, and by the ensuing court case against his father – oh, who is accused of running down a local criminal he bears a grudge against. The detail behind that emotionally loaded story is dutifully explained in the fourth act; and everything in this tightly constructed narrative world leads back to the relationship between father and son. Overall, there’s a lot of dutiful explanation of old familial/country town dramas, including an unknown love-child sub-plot.
Directing a film like this must be a strange affair. David Dobkin has proved himself to the studios in some other rather unpromising but commercially successful outings, such as Fred Claus (Vince Vaughn) and The Change-Up (Jason Bateman, Ryan Reynolds), and is given the keys to the studio’s Ferrari under the watchful supervision of a team of executive producers. The poor guy; as this seems to be the grind that a director must go through, earning people a modest amount of cash by transforming mediocre pitches and scripts, if s/he isn’t an indie darling with a breakout Sundance film under their belt. He’s competent here, everything is slickly shot and produced – and the film, surprisingly, skips by without much flab even though it is grossly overlength. I wasn’t bored, but I wasn’t entertained either; and fundamentally this film isn’t built for us. It is built for an audience that dines regularly on Inspector Morse or CSI:SVU and doesn’t want to venture too far afield when the wife/husband demands a trip to the Cineplex.
So we get a montage of country town goodness at the opening of the film – a baseball glove, an old Super 8 camera, Mom in the hydrangeas outside the white colonial house – to telegraph quickly where the film’s heart is. Then we’re in a big city bathroom where RDJr is literally pissing on opposing counsel’s leg in an indication of how far he’ll transform by the close of the film. ‘Innocent people can’t afford me’ Hank quips, in a manner only RDJr or William Shatner can truly sell. There’s a lot of real America, what the law truly is, apple pie, etc. to get through before we’re free of this focus-grouped feature. The usual features appear, a ‘how do you sleep at night’ speech that the script attempts to steal back with a bit of meta glibness, but overall you’ve seen it before, a million times.
Hank returns to town (complete with shots of him driving a sponsored SUV in front of fields of wholesome corn), and is quickly enmeshed in old conflicts. Just to make sure the audience is caught up on what they are – perhaps their hearing aids malfunctioned during the first act; or perhaps because they’re talking loudly over the top of it, as the grey hordes were during my session – we’re treated to some Super 8 footage that Hank’s simplistic brother has obsessively recorded, in another of those classic (read: tired and lazy) tropes. Really, by now Super 8 home movies are like the Zapruder film of emotional terrorism; capturing ‘back and to the left’ parenting mistakes ready to explode the plot in the right direction when called upon by the script. Half the time The Judge doesn’t even bother to set up the footage with the family gathered around the projector; it simply interjects it between scenes, in a technique that was avant garde about half a century ago.
To add tension, the Judge won’t defend himself properly because ‘he believed in the law’; a hollow truism made even more hollow here, where it is clear that the morality or ethics of arbitrating facts and deciding the fates of men isn’t really up for debate. Billy Bob Thornton turns up to create tension through his competence as a prosecutor, in a what-the-fuck performance that BBT seems to relish for his own enjoyment and which older audiences will find confusing or not even notice. He seems to delight in subverting, making sinister, the wholesome yet canny role he’s called on to perform here; invited into the tent for name recognition, and getting away with it because presumably the director is as bored with this mimeographed script as much as everyone else is. The clichéd old daddy issues are run through and resolved, and everyone is happy – except for the poor elderly brother, who is incidentally crippled by all of the conflict, but doesn’t really get to say much about it because he’s not a character that meaningfully exists or matters in the eyes of this script.
Look, if you’ve got some old, senile people who need to be kept out of harm’s way for an hour or two then lock them in a theatre screening The Judge and get some of those errands checked off. Alternately, if you’ve taken some Ambien or a sleeping pill for an overseas flight, The Judge is a perfect film to ease you in to sleep, with the piquancy of RDJr’s and BBT’s performances to make it tolerable; until you’re drooling out of the corner of your mouth, and the stewardess considerately switches off your screen.
Otherwise, studios, please set poor David Dobkin free. Whatever passion project he’s got stored up inside, nursing it to keep himself alive and persevere, he’s earned it.
Rating: Two stars