Release: Friday, October 10, 2014
Written by: Nick Schenk; Bill Dubuque
Directed by: David Dobkin
The honorable David Dobkin, who’s responsible for giving the world Wedding Crashers, presides over his very first drama and makes a relatively strong case for his continued exploration outside his comfort zone.
Despite narrative clutter and a doggedly long runtime (almost two and a half hours), which is perhaps more indicative of Dobkin’s awe over the star talent amassed in his courtroom (who else gets to say they have three epic Bob’s working for them on the same project: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall and Billy Bob Thornton?) than his ability to trim the fat from his scenes, The Judge is a worthwhile procession featuring performances that do nothing but exceed expectations.
At its core and simultaneously where the film reel shows its most serious signs of wear and tear, this is a tale of tough love — a power struggle between a father and son who have lost touch and any interest in reconnecting. Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.), a successful Chicago lawyer, returns to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana for his mother’s funeral. He and his father, the powerful and widely-respected Judge Joe Palmer (Duvall), can barely look one another in the eye and after 20 years it’s all the two can muster to force an awkward handshake. Given the actors involved, the personal tension is inherently intriguing and, presumably, complex. They become characters we’re instantly invested in.
We are less invested in the roughly 30-40 minutes used in setting up Hank’s backstory and what kind of life he’s leaving behind in Chicago to deal with his family — one of luxury made less alluring by what certainly appears to be a failing marriage. We’re not asking too much by wanting to skip to the part where Iron Man gets to square off in court with his bull-headed father, now, are we? Does that overlook the point of having Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Vera Farmiga as strong supporting characters who help illustrate what it is that Hank left behind all those years ago?
Maybe a little.
Contributing to the excess is the fact that there are one too many peripheral characters that Dobkin clearly wants to develop so as to not leave them as secondary thoughts. Unfortunately by the time the denouement hits, it itself has become a secondary thought, sidelined by over-explained relationships that truthfully don’t have anything unique about them. It gets to a point we almost forget the real reason we’re here: not just to experience the power of two heavyweight actors within a courtroom — which, by the way, is a very interesting setting in which to try and contain the personality of one Bob Downey Jr. This is, after all, technically a crime drama. There must be plot beyond seeing how well the actors come together as judge, jury and executioner.
For what it’s worth, thanks to the insertion of Billy Bob Thornton as a bloodthirsty lawyer on behalf of the plaintiff, the drama on the floor crackles with intensity and emotion. As Dwight Dickham, Thornton is once again too good at what he does. He stands out from the local crowd as obviously as Downey’s Hank Palmer who, with a minor degree of reluctance, represents his father in the wake of a disconcerting discovery at their residence — one involving bloodstains found on his old garage-bound jalopy that he has been appearing to cover up. Hank (and to a lesser extent his brothers) immediately know what this finding will mean if his dad has to appear in court.
Yes, indeed — that old trick. The unlikely bond forming in the 11th hour, then the series of unexplained circumstances testing the durability of the new bond. I wouldn’t be so irritated by the writing had this involved quite literally any other cast; these actors are too good to be pigeonholed into predictable trajectories. The guy playing Hank Palmer, for one, is a rather unpredictable actor but even he can’t escape the shackles of cliched character development.
It ain’t all bad, though.
The emotions run high and there are several moments in which time seems to come to a stand-still as dialogue flows forth freely, on occasion exploding as if released from a fire hydrant. Legal mumbo-jumbo isn’t even an issue here, which is a compliment that ought to be paid the screenwriters. Nick Shenk and Bill Dubuque understand they needn’t alienate an audience with technical jargon when there’s already enough beating around the bush going on.)
Come the end credits it’s difficult to shake the feeling The Judge could have banged its gavel a little more. . .creatively.
Recommendation: This guy may seem to be ruling slightly harsh on this film but this is mostly due to those pesky expectation levels again. While what this cast bring to the table is worth the price of admission, I can’t say the same about a rather bloated narrative that almost threatens to undermine a Robert Downey Jr. who may never have worked so hard for a paycheck. He alone is enough to still warrant a recommendation for seeing this in theaters. I just wouldn’t recommend going in expecting a whole lot more than a solid episode of Law & Order with A-list names involved though.
Running Time: 141 mins.
Quoted: “My father is a lot of unpleasant things, but murderer is not one of them.”
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