THE JUDGE Review

A lot of people who write about movies become not what most refer to as out-of-touch with general audiences, but rather accustomed to the ways in which films operate. They become an authority not just on how to receive a film, but on what it should do in order to accomplish its intended goals. In terms of adult dramas most would not include a Bon Iver soundtrack and in-your-face metaphors on the list of must-haves. I won't sit here and be even more pretentious to the point of thinking I know what everyone else is thinking, but it's not hard to see why a movie like The Judge is heavily dismissed. It's viewed as hokey and manipulative because it deals with situations that have come to be recognized as trite. I get where those who feel this way are coming from in that the film has plenty of issues to work out. For starters, it is too long-clocking in at nearly two and a half hours and not having the restraint to cut itself off two or three scenes earlier or trimming a few subplots. Screenwriters Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque have stuffed their story with so many archetypes it isn't even funny and I realize that. We not only have the tortured protagonist who returns to his roots to discover who he really is or the tough, unforgiving father but we also have the brother whose ultimate life didn't match his early promise, the mentally challenged brother and the girl who never left her small town. You recognize these characters, maybe moreso from movies than real life, but the point is there is something or someone here for everyone to connect with. There are what have come to be considered hokey circumstances because they've become so heavily relied on for drama and heartbreak, but the truth is cancer is devastating and when played right, is effective. Like its parade of clich├ęd characters there are multiple issues that come into play that you expect to find when circumstances must be played for drama. There is not only the mentally ill brother, but the murder at the heart of the films plot, the aforementioned life-threatening illness, questions of paternity and to top it off, a tornado comes through just in time to symbolize what a storm of emotions and issues these people are dealing with. I get it. The Judge is not necessarily high art, but I am a sucker for these types of films and this one in particular hit home enough for me that I can easily forgive its shortcomings.

Hank Palmer (Roert Downey Jr.) argues with his father, the Judge (Robert Duvall) in The Judge.
The hook here is that this is Robert Downey Jr. not in super hero mode, but instead as a hot shot lawyer rather than a hot shot billionaire. Downey Jr. is Hank Palmer, a man with a crumbling marriage and a young daughter (Emma Tremblay) with whom he is desperately trying to sustain a relationship. More important to him than any of this though seems to be his reputation as one of the best defense attorneys in Chicago. All of this must take a back seat when, in the middle of court, Hank receives a call from his brother informing him of their mothers passing. If Hank thought he was in the middle of personal turmoil before, it would have been best to forget about the drama that awaits him in his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana. We don't know why, but as he arrives and drives through the town where he grew up he doesn't give nods of appreciation or smiles of recognition to days gone by, but rather dismisses the town and its people as little more than a nuisance with which he would have rather not been bothered. Hank pays his respects to his mother, whom he clearly still loved yet had failed to see in over a handful of years. His brothers Dale (Jeremy Strong) and Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) have continued living out their lives in Carlinville, Dale with a mental handicap that is cushioned by the constant presence of his film camera while Glen seems in a constant state of sulk after what could have been an illustrious baseball career was dashed by a car wreck that destroyed his wrist. Their father, Joseph (Robert Duvall), has served as the town judge for forty-plus years and responds to the presence of everyone at his wifes funeral warmly except for that of his middle son whom he does the courtesy of acknowledging and nothing more. On the night the judge and his sons bury their wife and mother he makes a quick trip to the convenient store returning with damage to his car. The next morning the police show up questioning the judge about his whereabouts as there's been a hit and run that just so happens to involve a man Joseph put away for twenty years who was recently released.

Here is why I appreciate, but more importantly actually enjoyed The Judge: We all hope to be the best kind of person we can be and, God willing, expect and encourage those around us to do the same. Obviously, it's easy to lose sight of this basic human responsibility with everything we create to occupy ourselves in this life, but The Judge is a movie sincere in wanting to show us what happens when that need is brought back into focus. Yes, many critics will deem this as emotionally manipulative and maybe even nothing more than pure Oscar bait, but I didn't find the intent here to be that narcissistic. From where I'm sitting (and you can call it being gullible, but I prefer to think of it as non-cynical) everyone involved here is reaching for the inherent, honest emotions in the situations and circumstances that have come to revolve around these fractured lives. Downey Jr. will be half a century old next year and despite the fact he will be a new father soon he is at that stage in life where he is no doubt being lent a greater deal of perspective than he ever imagined possible. It is funny because it is clear this is a project the actor is deeply invested in (it is the first film produced by he and wife Susan's "Team Downey" production company), but while he is known now for his turn as the man in the iron mask he naturally needs another creative outlet for something more personal, more close to home. We saw this last year in Ben Stiller (who will also turn fifty next year) when his directorial effort The Secret Life of Walter Mitty attempted something more than a slapstick, treasure hunt family film when it instead tried to actually say something about the state of appreciation we should have for life and what constitutes truly living it. Not that I know what they're thinking, but I imagine both Downey Jr. and Stiller are coming to grasp with where they've been, what they've done and what they want to do differently with their remaining time given they've now been here longer than they likely have left. These kinds of realizations lead to nostalgia, reminiscing on what once was, what can never be again and how they likely didn't appreciate things as they should have the first time around. This all comes through in The Judge as we see Downey Jr. throw himself into situations where his character is forced to find solace and peace in who he's become and who he'll be from now on.

Hank and Jospeh Palmer come to deal with one another long enough to agree on a few things.
Director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) isn't necessarily the guy you'd expect to be at the helm of a big family drama/courtroom potboiler, but he is certainly stretching his directorial muscle here even if he overstays his welcome. Using long-time Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski every frame of the film looks as if it were a memory. This beautifully lit aesthetic nicely suits the intended tone of nostalgia and redemption while the expensive and unnecessarily time consuming establishing shots make the film feel bigger and more grand than they need to be ultimately distracting us from what the real focus should be: the people. Luckily, a handful of wonderful performances come through the gloss and still manage to shine. Like the film itself, Downey Jr. is confident and handsome as Hank. He plays up the fast-talking, smarmy persona he's known for while being able to transcend the oily qualities by being unable to turn his back on his family. Duvall plays to his strengths as well, exercising the grumpy old man act, but not without putting some pure heart and honesty into the execution. One scene in particular between he and Downey Jr. highlights not only the brutal reality of where our lives can sometimes lead, but along the way establishes a mature rapport with the audience that allows us to put our trust in (again) the intentions of the film. A roster of reliable character actors fill out the supporting roles all lending a sense of credibility to the proceedings even if they don't really have much to work with. D'Onofrio is especially heart breaking while Billy Bob Thornton and Dax Shepard exercise their strengths as counterparts in the courtroom. While her storyline isn't exactly necessary and indeed feels tacked on, Vera Farmiga does what she can as Samantha or the one that got away to Downey Jr.'s Hank while Leighton Meester plays her daughter who may or may not be Hank's long lost offspring. All of that accounted for this is still Downey Jr. and Duvall's show and they own the scenes that count even if the courtroom ones are indeed too melodramatic. In the end, The Judge is slow and methodical in a way that clearly shows it operates on its own terms and if you are willing to let it-it will take you in. It hit me hard in certain moments and I don't mind admitting that.