Movie Review #887
I, THE JURY, FIND THE DEFENDANT (“THE JUDGE”) GUILTY ON TWO COUNTS OF UNLIKEABLE CHARACTERS.
By Alexander Diminiano
|Premiered September 4, 2014 (Toronto International Film Festival)|
|Released October 10, 2014 (nationwide)|
|Rated R (contains profanity, suggestive dialogue)|
“90% of Americans believe in ghosts, while only 3% believe in evolution. 35% of Americans recognize Homer Simpson, yet less than 1% know the name Thurgood Marshall.”
Roughly paraphrased above is a line spoken by Robert Downey Jr. in one of the final scenes of “The Judge”. Perhaps the first portion of the quote is a bit of exaggeration, but I believe there may be some truth in the second portion of the truth. Which is pretty disheartening, but that’s not my point. My point is that, even if the entire quote were false, those four statistics were perhaps all I got out of “The Judge”, save for a ticket stub, a barely-empty bucket of popcorn, and the ice at the bottom of my soda.
There are two Roberts here. There’s Downey Jr., and there’s Duvall. There should only be one Robert, and if hints are allowed here, it’s not Duvall. Not only is Robert Duvall miscast in this one, it’s plainly obvious who the role was meant for. Jack Nicholson was offered the role of Joe Palmer opposite Robert Downey Jr. in “The Judge”, and the role screams Jack Nicholson. It doesn’t scream Boo Radley. It doesn’t even whisper Boo Radley.
Let me break it down for you. Joe Palmer (Duvall) is a judge in Indiana. His son, Hank (Downey), is a lawyer. Joe is a first-class asshole. Hank is also a first-class asshole. Hank’s brothers are played by Vincent “Private Pyle” D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong. D’Onofrio is the older brother who attempts to mentor Hank, but has absolutely no personality. Strong is their intellectually disabled younger brother who ports around an 8mm movie camera.
Their mother, Joe’s wife, drops dead. Joe starts drinking. Hank gets a call at court telling him that his mother’s dropped dead. As if by obligation, Hank goes back to the home he is glad to have moved away from. He’s coming back to visit his estranged father, and he complains the whole way into town about having to pay respects.
While Hank is visiting, Joe kills a man by the gas station. Joe loses his position as the county judge. Hank offers to be his father’s lawyer when he is tried for murder. Joe accepts.
Hank’s thoughts through all of this couldn’t be more clear. They aren’t, “Sure, I’d love to represent my father in a murder trial!” They’re, “God, I’ve paid my respects, can I just go home already?” Downey and Duvall play two children trapped interminably in the bodies of men. They’re ungrateful, unwilling to face reality, and tremendously whiney. I dare say that if “The Judge” had been written by Dr. Seuss, Duvall would be Asshole 1 and Downey would be Asshole 2. Of course, this means Downey’s in his comfort zone (has he ever played anybody that wasn’t full of himself?), but his character is more than self-absorbed. He’s downright heartless. While this is occasionally played for humorous effect, I didn’t find the attempted comedy funny at all. In fact, it only fortified Downey as a thoroughly unlikeable character.
I’ll give Downey props for his acting. Like I’ve said, he’s in his comfort one with this one. During the film’s trial scenes, Billy Bob Thornton is seen as the plaintiff, presenting the same bulldog temper as he always does. That’s the better section of the cast: character acting.
“The Judge” tries so hard to be anything but a cloying drama. Too bad it doesn’t meet that goal. The first half of the film is a weak, soapy Lifetime drama. It graduates from that into a sophisticated character drama somewhere in the second chunk of the movie, with a scene that reveals all the flaws in Downey’s and Duvall’s characters. But it falls back almost instantly afterward. That scene, I don’t doubt, will stick with me, because it took me by surprise: it was the single five-minute interval that allowed me to genuinely feel bad for Downey’s character and , to a considerable extent, for Duvall’s character. It was the cathartic moment when Downey reached the apex of his performance, and where Duvall delivered the sturdy performance we would actually expect from him.
But the second half acts more as a legal drama in which these two are client and lawyer, not father and son. When director David Dobkin delves into the legal aspects of their relationship, things do get pretty interesting. But while logically, this turn would indicate a less touchy-feely finale, the last twenty minutes start steering back in the other direction. As a writer, I completely understand why the fluffy conclusion works less than any touchiness that didn’t work in the first half of the screenplay: endings can be very difficult to write. It’s hard to sympathize with writers Nick Schenck and Bill Dubuque, though. “The Judge” ends lazily. Cornball dialogue where father sidetracks from his testimony to tell lawyer/son how much he loves him. Meanwhile, every other face in the courtroom is an insipid caricature that may have been pulled directly from a poor-quality middle school play.
Speaking only of its visuals, “The Judge” is a beautiful movie. Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński has turned this into a definite Oscar contender: it captures the film on magnificent 35mm as if it were an epic. No doubt Kamiński saves the film to some extent. Frankly, he’s too good to have worked on a film like “The Judge”. Why he actually signed on to shoot the film can be answered with a few glances at his cinematography: Kamiński has been a cinematographer since 1990, and of the 35 films he’s shot since then, 14 were directed by Steven Spielberg. Spielberg being the director who doesn’t direct a movie unless it spotlights father-son conflict as either a main plot or a subplot. So why didn’t Spielberg just direct “The Judge”? He would’ve made so much more out of it than David Dobkin has.