Making a film is often like attempting to put together a big jigsaw puzzle. All the right pieces have to fit together without being either forced or utilizing pieces from another puzzle. Hopefully by the end, you have a cohesive whole where all the parts come together to match what you initially set out to make. The best way to describe The Judge is that it resembles a large puzzle with pieces that do in fact match what the film should be. There are parts that knock it out of the park as a courtroom drama and a microscope to the disintegration of a father/son relationship. However, it also includes jammed pieces or is missing some that were perhaps dropped on the floor.
Robert Downey Jr. stars as Hank Palmer, an incredibly cynical and arrogant upscale defense attorney, who specializes in getting guilty clients off charges. In the midst of a divorce, Palmer receives a call that his mother has passed away and he returns to his hometown much to his chagrin. It’s adamant that it holds some demons so to speak, which are further exasperated when he reunites with his estranged father Joseph (Robert Duvall). He’s the titular judge of 42 years who is himself charged with murder per a hit and run. Reluctantly, Joseph has to rely on his hotshot and disenfranchised son as his defense.
Director David Dobkin, whose father was ironically a lawyer, is mostly associated with making comedies. I’m a huge fan of his smash success Wedding Crashers and his breakout film Clay Pigeons. While the later was certainly a dark and mean-spirited comedy, it was decisive in its tone and consistent. One of the biggest issues plaguing The Judge is that it seems unclear what kind of film it wants to be. The relationship between Joseph and Hank feels authentic and bares a lot of similarities to Terms of Endearment. Their arguments are harsh exchanges and it’s played straight. By the same token, Duvall’s original choice for a defense attorney (Dax Shepard) is comic relief in the worst sense. He feels rather out-of-place as does his entire involvement with the rest of the movie.
Dobkin doesn’t seem entirely satisfied with exploring the complex relationship between father and son. There’s a plethora of other plot points that feel like they’re coming from all over the place. It’s almost as if the filmmakers sat down and went through a checklist of “Oscar Bait” material and cherry picked some to include. These range from Hank reconnecting with the girl he left behind (Vera Farmiga), an older brother with baseball aspirations that were crushed by circumstance (Vincent D’Onofrio), a mentally handicapped brother (Jeremy Strong), and even secretive cancer. That’s a lot to digest, especially given the bloated 140 minute runtime that frequently stalls the movie.
I wouldn’t have minded these numerous storylines had they been given more focus or didn’t feel so manipulative. Dale, the mentally impaired younger brother of Hank, is merely a plot device without much character. He’s just there to provide innocent humor and use his knack for film to fill in some of the exposition regarding the family back story. D’Onofrio as older brother Glenn was a great relief to those stalls I was talking about. He provides needed subtle emotion to counteract the extravagant arguments between Hank and Joseph. By the way, there’s an incestuous subplot that I considered to be downright reprehensible given that it was intended to be laughed at but I won’t go any further.
How are the performances by Downey Jr. and Duvall? To be frank, they’re exactly what you would expect. Downey employs a lot of his smarmy traits from his Tony Stark character but he’s allowed to show more range. Duvall is the grizzled old father who still has a lot of fire left in him but time has apparently caught up to him. The scenes they have together are well performed, but they oftentimes hit the same notes. There’s a scene that occurs in a bathroom that is the highlight of The Judge that thankfully differs from the majority of the parts between the two acting greats.
Given the title, there’s a great deal of time devoted to the courtroom sequences. One of my favorite things about The Judge is the attention to detail and accuracy regarding the legal system and terminology used in the trials. These scenes contain the only effective comedic moments of the movie including Hank’s method of appealing to the jury. By the way, Hank’s opponent prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton) is a character that is largely underplayed both in performance and writing. I can’t knock the choice given how much is crowbarred into the movie, including I don’t know many shots opening with a sun glare. It may sound trivial, but it really got on my nerves after a while.
So, what’s my verdict on The Judge? All in all, for every moment or choice that stumbles (such as the obvious storm metaphor); there’s usually one that does work. There are several moments that did get to me on an emotional level. Granted, they do feel manipulative at times, but I give the movie points for making my eyes water. It’s a movie that is standard to a fault, but offers a great platform for its two leads. I do think it falls short on being a great film given its resources and overstuffed story, but it’s definitely not a film that I regret seeing.
Review – The Judge