The Judge


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.


2-5Recommendation: 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.

Rated: R

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “My father is a lot of unpleasant things, but murderer is not one of them.”

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17 thoughts on “The Judge

  1. Pingback: Top That: Ten Actors Who Clearly Love their Job | digitalshortbread

  2. Great review, buddy! This is another one that I doubt I’ll see in theaters, but it sounds like it might be worth a rental just for RDJ. I mean, can that man do wrong?? Lol.


    • I know, right? RDJ typically brings his impossibly outgoing persona to the silver screen once more and does not disappoint! Neither does Duvall, and in fact the most predictable part of this film is actually just how good those two are in tandem. I just wish the script stood up a little taller. It is not much more than a TV courtroom drama, I do have to admit. That still shouldn’t stop you, a film lover, from seeing it though. 🙂 🙂 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey I just reviewed this one too but sounds like you liked this more than I did, Tom. It was way too long that even this stellar cast left me rather bored. I did like Billy Bob Thornton though, he definitely made an impression on me, even more so than RDJ I have to say.


    • I loved the casting. Not so much the length or the script’s inability to stray from cliched territory. There was a lot of things that could have gone much worse here, though. So I guess I’ll take what I can get.


  4. The biggest problem with this film is that it lacks any sort of court-room suspense. It goes for mush instead of thrills. Tears instead of excitement. It screams…GIVE ME A BEST PICTURE award instead of actually earning it…

    …But I agree with you. The cast saves it from being a complete fail. I think mainstream critics are being a bit too hard on it. It ain’t a bad movie…just nowhere as good as it could have been.


    • Louie I think your argument is stronger than mine. This was tugging way too hard at times for those empathy points. Particularly after, well. . .I’ll just go ahead and say “the decision was made.” To avoid spoilers.

      I predicted virtually everything as it happened but that’s not to say I didn’t have fun in the process. I definitely went in with elevated expectations despite having read yours and a few other more harsh ones. And no, it’s not a bad movie. But it did indeed fall short of its potential.

      RDJ though is freaking awesome. I wasn’t sure who was better actually; him or Duvall. Thornton wasn’t in it enough, either.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Your expectations — keep them in check mate. They’re pesky fuckers and they get the best of you (me) all the time. Lol.

      That said, absolutely go to it if a fan of any of the cast. Rock solid for sure. I just wish story could have amounted to something perhaps more unique, you know? 🙂


  5. I’m still in debate whether or not I should see this. I actually thought you were less harsh than other reviewers out there! It’s gotten a mediocre rating on RT. I’m just not sure! Two and a half hours is a long time.


    • I tried to be. 🙂 Lol I had some of those harsher reviews in mind and to me, this movie may have been, as RT claims, “thoroughly cliched” but I lost myself in the performances. It’s why this gets a 6 instead of a 5. A 5/8 is way too harsh, even though the math says that’s a 62.5%

      But yah. The running time was a major factor for me, and it probably will be for some casual viewers too. Although the 80% audience rating has me rethinking that. . .people loved it. And they should have. It’s probably mostly what everyone thought it would be. If I could move you to go the theaters, cool, but if you’re on the fence at all, may as well wait for rental. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s interesting that the audience rating was still so high despite the long run time. I’ll have to check this one out, and in theaters on discount day, perhaps!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Excellent review! The cast is stellar and fine acting makes fissures in a script endurable. Sounds like a winner. Thanks for sharing, I was wondering what to go see this weekend 😉


    • Cheers, Cindy. Many thanks. 🙂

      Yep, you summed up my thoughts succinctly. Excellently cast but the story is age-old. Not bad enough to avoid, though. Give it a shot!

      Liked by 1 person

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