The Judge

Movie Review #887

I, THE JURY, FIND THE DEFENDANT (“THE JUDGE”) GUILTY ON TWO COUNTS OF UNLIKEABLE CHARACTERS.

★★
By Alexander Diminiano

judge

Premiered September 4, 2014 (Toronto International Film Festival)
Released October 10, 2014 (nationwide)
Drama
Rated R (contains profanity, suggestive dialogue)
141 minutes

“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.

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9 thoughts on “The Judge

  1. Everything about this review is god awful. Not only are there a lot of mistakes in the plot summery itself but the critiques are garbage as well. This is actually a very good movie and I find it amusing when people who have no idea what they are talking about try to rip apart a movie. Robert Duvall killed it in this movie and got an Oscar for it so that shows how little you really know. I have not spoken to a single person who watched this movie and didn’t say they really liked it. The love story part of it may have been a little forced but was still necessary to complete the character transformation for RDJ. One could make the argument that the movie was a little too cliché but there really isn’t anything wrong with that if you still make a good product especially when you factor in the fact that everything in Hollywood is cliché these days. I love this movie and anyone who doesn’t has horrible taste in movies. If you have not seen this movie yet, don’t let this crap deter you from seeing. It will be one of the better movies you have seen in a while, I guarantee it.

    • I agree, the trailers sucked. I was always really taken aback at how the trailers always shifted so suddenly from tongue-in-cheek comedy to heartfelt drama. I wouldn’t advise seeing this in theaters, but when it comes to DVD, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    • I went through the whole movie knowing I knew the brother from somewhere. When I looked him up later, I immediately held my head in my hands and thought of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: “Private Pyle has dishonored himself and dishonored the platoon!”

  2. I have no professional eyes of course but I thought it was filmed in a neat way and I agree the one brother was devoid of emotion but i enjoyed it overall- thought Robert Downey Jr played a good role and I felt really bad for the way his dad treated him. until the end. Can relate to caring for a sick father so it tugged at my heartstrings. I am only looking to escape for two hours when I go to the movies- anything else is a bonus.
    I appreciate your keen eye. At least it did better than Annabelle.

    • Thank you for your comment!!

      I agree with you that RDJ did well. However, I found the movie so cloying (despite trying so hard not to be). I kept sensing that it was trying to force an emotional reaction on me, but when the characters aren’t likable, you need a REALLY good writer to do that. If only the producers had stuck with their original choice to pen the script: the Oscar winner who wrote the script for The King’s Speech.

      I’m with you there: believe it or not, I actually go to the movies for escape too. 🙂 At the end of the day, they do need to be entertaining, and that’s ultimately what makes the difference in how I grade movies. For instance, I could’ve been wowed with cinematography, music, acting, the whole nine yards, but if I was entertained, I’m not going to consider it a good movie. The Judge had its moments for me, and I loved what RDJ did for it most especially. But for most of the time, I felt either bored or cheated.

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