The Judge Review

Posted: October 20, 2014 by moviebuff801 in moviebuff801's Movie Reviews

By: Michael “MovieBuff801” Dennos

It’s that time of year again. Around every October begins a slew of “prestige movies” hoping to gain some popularity points with Oscar voters in some form or another. Maybe half of them actually end up living to those lofty expectations, while the other half fall awkwardly into that “trying too hard” category, where they’re destined to mostly be forgotten by the time January rolls around. Unfortunately, David Dobkin’s The Judge is part of the latter. You’d think a great, or at least very good movie would be delivered here with such a promising premise and cast, but while The Judge certainly has its strong moments and two equally powerful lead performances to help it along, this is a movie that’s too preoccupied with following the “Oscar Bait Handbook,” that said predisposition overshadows the rest of the movie.

Robert Downey Jr. stars as Hank Palmer, an infamous “big city” defense attorney with an intimidating reputation in the courtroom. One day, Hank receives word that his mother has passed away, prompting him to hop on a flight home to Carlinville, Indiana for the funeral. Almost immediately upon arriving, Hank is bombarded with reminders of the life he left behind, the most painful of which being the crusty, old-fashioned Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), a.k.a. Daddy Dearest. To say that Hank and The Judge (yes, that’s what most people in the film call him) have a troubled relationship would be an understatement; these two can’t be around each other for five minutes without one or the other being insulted. After the funeral, Hank practically already has one foot on the plane, but is forced to stay when his father is hauled into the police station on suspicion of murder. The evidence isn’t exactly doing him any favors, and before either father or son know it, Hank has taken up the case to clear his dad’s name, going up against a determined prosecutor named Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton). I know what you’re thinking, and yeah, that name’s a bit too on-the-nose, isn’t it? Meanwhile, Hank has to put up with pressure from his brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), as well as deal with the affections of an old high school girlfriend, Samantha (Vera Farmiga). In more ways than one, this is the case of Hank’s life.

There’s just enough good on display in The Judge to keep it from simply being sentimental bullshit, but the fact that it shamelessly wears its heart on its sleeve is the least of this movie’s concerns. The real problems with this movie lie in its story. Featuring an overlong runtime of nearly 2 1/2 hours, The Judge is padded out by a central courtroom case that isn’t nearly as interesting or intriguing as it thinks it is and subplots that either feel stretched pretty thin or could have been trimmed down quite a bit. I get what David Dobkin and co. are going for here — an “old-timey” movie — but the difference here is that a lot of movies like that had better scripts than the one The Judge has. If the case had been more of a secondary focus while the primary one was the father/son relationship while trimming the unnecessary fat, I could see this movie being better, but as it stands, The Judge is just a well-acted, mostly O.K. movie.

By this point in his career, there’s really no denying the sheer talent of Robert Downey Jr. and here, he easily steals the screen. All of that trademark fast-talking, smartest-guy-in-the-room swagger we both love so much about the guy and have come to expect of him is on display in all its sarcastic glory in this film, with shades of pent-up resentment and aggression that always makes Hank Palmer an interesting character to watch. Downey does a really good job of bringing out that emotionality, and here he reminds us that even in “smartass mode”, he can still deliver a dramatically compelling performance. We can put him on the list of some of the more talented actors yet to win an Oscar. Robert Duvall is an equally commanding presence in this film, and whenever these two guys share the screen together, that’s when The Judge feels the most alive. Concurrently, the performances from Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio and Billy Bob Thornton are all engaging as well, but the film continually lets the performances down in one way or another. In fact, when you look at these strongly-acted scenes on their own, they feel like they belong in a different and better movie.

As strongly-acted as most of these scenes are, though, they’re undercut by the fact that screenwriters Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, along with director David Dobkin, don’t know the definition of subtlety at all. Nearly all of the significant emotional beats of The Judge are either heavily telegraphed or beaten over our heads relentlessly — sometimes both. Rather than stepping back and letting the material speak for itself, Dobkin seems way too inclined to prove that he has what it takes to direct a respectable and moving character drama, as opposed to his previous goofy comedies such as Wedding Crashers and Fred Claus. There’s not really anything wrong with that intention in theory, but he’s trying too hard, and more often than not, The Judge almost feels like a soapy Lifetime movie of the week, suds and all. I’ll admit, though, that there are times when Dobkin knows to just let his cast work their magic in both lighter and heavier scenes, but other times when this film feels like his Oscar audition reel with the sentimentality practically oozing out of the screen. Look, I’m perfectly okay with some sentimentality — as long as it’s done well. That said, however, there were quite a few moments in The Judge where I was rolling my eyes. The script is guilty here, too. None of its storylines are really all that interesting, and by the time the courtroom case reaches its climax, it’s pretty surprising how little we care about the outcome. The actors are certainly a treat to watch, but we’re constantly aware that we’re being manipulated.

There are a number if disappointing things about The Judge, but the most disappointing is the clear potential the film misses out on in favor of sappy melodrama. This isn’t a complete loss, thanks to some strong performances and a few genuinely great scenes, but the final verdict is that it’s guilty of over-manipulation, deserving of a sentence of being relegated to serving time with those other disappointing Oscar baits.

**1/2 /****

  1. I did enjoy this film but agree with many of your points. A leaner running time would have been better. As much as I love RDJ in the Marvel movies and some of his other action films, it was nice to see him in a more serious role in a straight-up drama.

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