Review: “The Judge”

“The Judge” should be admired simply as a movie where everyone tried so damn hard to make something intense and passionate out of such worn material—and partially succeeding. It looks beautiful and the performances are tremendous, it’s just that we’ve seen the story so many times and in much shorter movies.

Robert Downey Jr plays smart ass Chicago lawyer (which is also the name of my TV pilot) Hank Palmer, a man who uses his smart assery and cunning to defend the most despicable aside. Downey has become synonymous for his devil-may-care wit, but here he uses it to make Palmer seem like a total ass (talk about appropriation).

After years of playing Iron Man we forget how raw of an actor Downey can be. We see many scenes with him masking his pain with sarcasticness and bursting into sudden bouts of rage. The story centers on him defending his estranged father in a murder trial and you can tell that given Downey’s own father troubles he has been dedicated to this performance since reading the script.

His father, Joe, is played by Robert Duvall in an equally committed performance. Joe, a longtime judge of a small town is racked with illness and the sudden death of his wife and just like Hank he masks his inner turmoil with rage and old man curmudgeon. I don’t mean he’s angry like a geezer who shouts “Who moved the Raisin Bran? You kids are always messing with my Raisin Bran!” He has real pain and frustrations and we see it in Duvall’s stunningly subtle and often infuriated showcase.

They have verbal battles in the kitchen while fighting back tears as well moments of joy, like when Hank must clean up a struggling Joe in the bathtub—which is also as gross as it sounds. The movie requires these men be on the same level, and watching it all play out is a true showcase of acting pedigree.

Their environment is equally up to snuff, as it should be, with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski working his moody magic. Just like he did working on practically all of Spielberg’s movies since “Schindler’s List”, Kaminski darkens scenes in an absorbing shadow, using rays of sunlight—usually through a window—to highlight certain elements.

Everyone aforementioned, including director David Dobkin, are at their best we’ve seen in a while, it’s just a shame the movie is far too long (142 minutes) and has way too many characters filling that whole space.

Characters like a rookie attorney (Dax Shepard) at once appear to be major players but after a certain point barley show their faces. Other top-notch actors like Vera Framiga and Billy Bob Thorton are reduced to the love interest and “bad guy because he’s on that side of the room” characters. The script just doesn’t know what to do with and contribute little to the riveting father-son aspect.

As well, the script sometimes jumps from hard drama to moments of cheesy “Watch this guy rediscover his joy”. For instance, one moment Joe and Hank are arguing outside a crime scene and the next Hank is acting all happy-go-lucky on his old bike. It goes from grit to gloop in, like, a minute. At least give me a second to calm myself down, at least.

It seems like “The Judge” wants to be both a gritty father-son legal drama and a crowd-pleasing, down-home family drama. On one front it triumphs thanks to superb acting and technical skill, and on the other it’s just more of the same hum-drum. It could’ve been 30-40 minutes shorter and miles better, but the commitment and focus on the real story clears “The Judge” on most counts. Legal joke!

Grade: B-

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