Directed by: David Dobkin
Written by: Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque and David Dobkin
Starring: Robert Duvall, Robert Downey Jr., Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard and Leighton Meester
The Judge caters to the masses, and will probably perform well at the box office. This is the type of film that panders to moviegoers who make one or two trips a year to their local theater to see a movie they deem worthy of their entertainment dollar. The Judge, they’ll proclaim, is the must see movie of the season. Trust me, it’s not.
Robert Downey Jr. stars as Hank, a well-polished attorney who abandoned his small-town roots for the allure of the big city. He’s slick and successful. When his mother dies, he returns home to his recalcitrant father Joseph (a respected judge) and his two siblings.
The town is shell-shocked when Joseph is charged with murder in a hit and run case. The caveat? Joseph presided over the victim’s trial years ago, and many people think he let the man off too lightly. So was the hit and run a deliberate attempt to rectify his past mistake? Or was it mere coincidence?
Hank decides to stay in town and defend his father in the courtroom since the only attorney in the vicinity is less than competent, and predictably reconnects with his high school sweetheart Samantha (Vera Farmiga).
In between his bloviating courtroom appearances, Hank discovers that his father is suffering from a severe medical illness that might play a crucial role in the circumstances of the accident. That illness lays the groundwork for Hank’s redemptive story arc.
He desperately tries to save his father from a prison sentence in the courtroom and a death sentence outside the courtroom. Joseph becomes a sympathetic character when his physical and mental vulnerability is exposed, and the antagonistic father/son dynamic morphs into a mutually respectful relationship by the end of the movie.
The film is well-acted. How can you go wrong with Duvall and Downey? There are some truly gut-wrenching scenes in the final third of the movie. Duvall’s Joseph is stripped bare of dignity and pride in a sequence that’s painful to watch, particularly if you have dealt with anyone with a terminal illness. It’s the most realistic aspect of the movie, and I respect the writers’ decision to depict the illness in such a graphic manner.
However, that’s where the realism begins and ends. The courtroom scenes are ridiculous. Hank and prosecutor Dwight (Billy Bob Thornton) spar with one another with verbose pretense, even though most of their one-line zingers are probably lost on the small-town jury. Hank has already demonstrated during the jury selection process how little faith he has in their collective intelligence (he chose his jury members based on what bumper stickers they have on their cars). It doesn’t make any sense that he would put on all these artificial airs for the jury. If anything, he would dumb himself down. Of course that wouldn’t make for a good movie.
The writers of The Judge play it very safe. It is immediately made clear that Hank’s wife is a no-good cheater. This means he can mess around with his old girlfriend (and her daughter) and still remain the golden boy. All the relationships in the movie are wrapped up in a tidy bow. Hank is redeemed; his relationship with his father is mended. This is a crowd pleaser, but it misses the opportunity to be interesting or complex. Why not expand on the implications of what would happen if a Judge’s competency came into question due to medical reasons? Would the outcome of all the cases he resided over during his illness come into question? The question is kind of thrown out there, but never explored.
Director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) does a serviceable job, but there are some pacing issues that should have been addressed. An hour could easily have been shaved from the 140 minute running time. Overall, Downey and Duvall are a good to reason to see The Judge, but poor writing bogs down the movie’s true potential. — Shannon