The Judge, starring Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall
Could a feature-length cliché win an Oscar? The release date of October 10th was perhaps deliberately tempting the Academy bees to come buzzing around The Judge, starring the two big Roberts – Downey Jr and Duvall, but when it comes to judging this film, the praise is likely to come up a little short.
There are, however, truly moving moments of brilliance here and there. Nick Schenk’s script is sensitive and edgy, but peppered throughout with more than a few comic touches, perhaps because it is in the hands of director David Dobkin, the man behind Wedding Crashers and Fred Claus. It could easily be overdone, but considering this is his first gritty drama, he handles the balance very capably.
Life seems to be catching up with Hank Palmer (Downey Jr), a typically unscrupulous city lawyer who thinks nothing of psyching out his rivals by urinating on them prior to a court hearing. Having discovered that his wife Lisa “played hide the pickle with someone else”, he learns that his mother has passed away while tending her hydrangeas.
Hank reluctantly ventures home for the first time in 20 years to a decidedly frosty reception from the man he simply calls “Judge”, his father Joseph (Duvall); big brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), who was once a promising baseball player; and younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong), whose mental impairment leaves him blissfully unaware of the state of his increasingly dysfunctional family.
A pillar of the community, Judge Joseph seems to be losing grip a little. He is forgetting names he should know well and when he goes out to buy eggs after his wife’s funeral, he crashes his car and can’t remember doing it. When the blood of a dead man he sentenced ten years earlier is found on his front bumper, Joseph is arrested for murder and his son feels an obligation to help him.
Hank has something to prove, but the Judge is making it very difficult. The incompetent lawyer he hires instead (Dax Shepard) visibly flounders in the wake of slick prosecutor, Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) and, pinned down by forensic and circumstantial evidence, Joseph needs help from his son if he is going to prove his innocence.
The Duvall and Downey Jr combination works very well, particularly when the tension rises. There is a notable scene in the bathroom, which is both harrowing and heart-rending, and the touch of humour is played with sensitivity. This, plus a moment in the courtroom which resembles an episode of Dr Phil, is a wonderful insight into their journey towards forgiveness.
Hank’s old flame Sam (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter Carla (Leighton Meester), born about nine months after he left town, are the film’s female eye candy. Apart from providing an interesting, if clichéd, reverse Oedipal scenario, they do not really add anything to the charm of the film.
His brothers are nothing like him, or each other, and Carlinville is a truly model small-town Indiana, giving the distinct impression that we are dealing here with stereotypes, but Hank and Joseph are well enough rounded to more than make up for these inadequacies.
The film is dialogue-driven, there is good pace, emotion and tension, but there is cliché after cliché – the son desperate to please his father, for whom nothing is ever going to be enough; the city-slicker seemingly lost back in his hometown; and the old girlfriend with a child exactly as old as the years they have been apart.
It doesn’t help that Thomas Newman’s score is truly overpowering in places, where the nudge to the viewer is perhaps more of a sharp poke, and some of the plot is tediously predictable.
With some unexpected twists and turns here and there, a beautifully crafted script and acting that pulls some real heavyweight punches, The Judge may not win an Oscar, but the jury is definitely going to be touched, impressed and entertained.