The Judge (2014)
Dir: David Dobkin
It must be odd to be the highest paid actor in the world. That’s the position Robert Downey Jr. found himself in after striking gold as the fast-talking Tony Stark in the Iron Man and Avengers franchises (and soon Captain America’s movies as well). After a spectacular comeback that rivals any in Hollywood, Downey now seemingly has the world at his fingertips and opted to spend some of that hard-earned cachet as producer and star of the legal drama The Judge. What could’ve been a nice change of pace from the high-wattage world of superheroes instead turns out to be a limp, overlong slog that misuses Downey’s signature charm in service of a simultaneously sour and trite tale.
It’s okay to be a rogue (as Downey often is, in films like Iron Man and the underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), but if we’re meant to be emotionally invested in a bastard there needs to be at least some likeable elements. (You can also successfully subvert expectations and have a nigh-irredeemable asshole like Seth Rogen’s Ronnie in Observe and Report, but that requires tonal conviction and an airtight script – two qualities lacking in The Judge.) Downey’s high-powered defence lawyer Hank Palmer is introduced pissing on a rival’s leg, and when his ethics are questioned he retorts “Innocent people can’t afford me.” He’s the type of guy that peels out in his car to prove a point even though there are young kids around. His daughter barely knows him and his workaholic ways have forced his trophy wife into the arms of another man. In short, Hank’s due for a reckoning.
He gets that chance when a phone call forces him to leave big city Chicago for small town Carlinville, Indiana – his mother has died and he needs to return home. Director David Dobkin (previously best known for Wedding Crashers) creates an idealized milieu of Americana that exists only in movies (particularly those of the Michael Bay variety). American flags flapping in slow-motion breezes, constantly rotating cameras, endless lens flares, frequent overhead establishing shots, and an honest-to-goodness solid eye for composition are just some of the directorial tics that Dobkin shares with Bay. And if you though that the mostly winning Wedding Crashers felt long at two hours, then The Judge will feel endless as it clocks in at nearly two-and-a-half hours. (Bay’s films, even the good ones, similarly overstay their welcome.)
The inciting incident doesn’t even occur until nearly 40 minutes in. Hank’s severe and disapproving father Joseph (Robert Duvall portraying the titular judge) runs an errand the night of his wife’s funeral. The next day his fender is busted and he’s accused of murder (most foul!), stalling Hank’s planned getaway and forcing him to stay in Carlinville to defend his father’s honour (“Defend your Honour” also being the tagline of the film). Along the way there is of course some dredging up of family secrets amidst the numerous daddy issues that need to be worked through.
Hank’s family also includes elder brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio giving the movie’s sole emotionally resonant performance) who was slated for baseball greatness but sidelined along the way, and younger Dale (Jeremy Strong) who seems a bit touched in the Cuba Gooding Jr. as Radio type way (i.e. he’s an offensive stereotype of mental illness). They, along with Vera Farmiga as Hank’s former flame and Dax Shepard as an inept local defence attorney, help to round out a litany of sub-plots that pad the run time to an unbearable length. That’s not even mentioning the underused Billy Bob Thornton as prosecutor Dwight Dickham (an admittedly great character name).
One example of the heightened and weird tone of The Judge occurs when the well-dressed Dwight is introduced in the courtroom via a swirling Bay Boys-esque tracking shot as he unfolds a badass collapsible cup that he must’ve brought from home. The movie seems to be going for menace here but it comes off as laughable. When The Judge wants to make clear Shepard’s inexperience as a trial lawyer it shows him puking from nerves not once but on three separate occasions. The oddness continues as scenes just kind of end with no punctuation and little meaning to parse, fading or cross-cutting into the next. The daughter is basically speaking directly from the screenwriter’s keyboard and at one point Vera Farmiga’s character utters to Hank in all sincerity, “Dammit hank, I loved you then and I love you now!” The line comes out of nowhere and is apropos of nothing, as the character is underwritten in the best tradition of Michael Bay female leads. It’s embarassing for the audience and embarassing for Farmiga, who’s usually better than this.
To be fair Downey does get in some choice lines like, “Everybody’s Atticus finch until there’s a dead hooker in the bathtub”, and Duvall is typically great in his role. It’s not Duvall’s best work in recent years (see Get Low or We Own The Night for better examples), but he brings his usual gruff dignity and gravitas to the endearing grandpa-type that he could do in his sleep. There’s one scene that I’m certain will have people championing Duvall’s lack of vanity and surplus of vulnerability, but in the context of the film it just feels crassly calculated. And that’s indicative of the main issue overall, as The Judge seeks to tug at the heartstrings but instead comes off as cloying, overly sentimental, and just plain fake. In one diner scene Downey orders a coffee (to no one in particular) and has eggs at his table in 30 seconds flat. This is a movie that’s disconnected from reality and thus can’t evoke empathy.
If you make it through all this courtroom and family melodrama heavily indebted to Michael Bay of all people, then you’ll be treated to a series of endless Return of The King-style climaxes capped off by a final scene devoid of any emotion or heft. And as one last twist of the knife a honky tonk cover of Coldplay plays over the end credits, assaulting your ears and making you re-think your life choices. Like its lead character, The Judge is a smarmy misfire whose sheen of professionalism can’t mask the emptiness at its core.