The Judge - Review

The Judge, is an uneven, rather dissatisfying film that inhabits the very American genre of the “Coming-home-drama” where the city-based protagonist or protagonists return to their generally “Middle-America”, “small-town” roots for a family occasion or high-school reunion. Often the “small-town” is pretty and even idyllic, contrasting with any family unrest and unhappiness. Protagonist/s often learn lessons from coming home, ultimately soothing family squabbles and find some sort of peace, closure and self-acceptance from the experience. Some good examples include August: Osage County (2013), Junebug (2005), Sweet Home Alabama (2002) and the darkly hilarious Grosse Pointe Blank (1997).

Largely The Judge plays no differently to this core plot, but with some quirks added to the mix. Our protagonist is down-in-the-dumps Chicago criminal lawyer Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr) who returns home to Carlinville, Indiana, after hearing his mother has passed away. From the moment he re-enters his childhood home and greets his family it is clear that there is rocky terrain in the family’s relationships. There is his intellectually disabled, younger brother Dale Murray (Jeremy Strong), bulldozer older brother, Glen Palmer (Vincent D’Onofrio) and venerable town figure and father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall). Particular strain is between Hank and his father, who is very comfortable with acknowledging his son as he does everyone else and having Hank refer to him as “Judge”. Then the plot takes an interesting turn and Judge is accused of murdering a local town reprobate. This trial of the father fills the larger part of the film’s plotline, whilst also canvassing family history and Hank’s high-school love with casually confident Samantha Powell (Vera Farmiga). Hank’s family, and particularly his father, come to acknowledge that they need “middle-child” Hank’s help and expertise with the trial and thus through this role and interaction, really begins Hank’s learning journey.

Robert Downey Jnr essentially plays Hank like a grumpier version of Tony Stark; (Or is it RDJ himself?) full of wit and smart cracks but more angry and angsty due to his impending divorce, concern over a widening gap with his young daughter and his father issues coupled with a middle-child complex. Valid reasons to be down-in-the-dumps but you end up wishing he acted his age a touch quicker, rather than cracking onto pretty young things at the bar and wallowing in self-pity. Still RDJ is always a likeable presence in film, even when one is frustrated with him. D'Onofrio's slightly tired and worn, bullish older brother and Billy Bob Thornton’s smooth and scrupulous prosecuting lawyer, Dwight Dickham (a deliberately funny name?) make a solid presence in a cast of supporting actors that are otherwise thinly sketched or caricatures. Vera Farmiga looks great and sassy but there is not enough there to make much of a lasting impression. The movie-camera fixated, intellectually-disabled younger brother is an odd element that falls flat on humour and made me wonder why it was necessary to include this character at all. Often genuinely amusing is Dax Shepard as amateur lawyer C.P. Kennedy, but at times even his humour is played with a heavy-hand.

This is really Duvall's show and he is the stand-out in the film. His presence can only be described as gargantuan and a true master of the craft. He seems to glean the moments in the film that feel the most true to life and are the most affecting. In him I felt a true commitment to the role of the ferociously proud and beleaguered lion of ethics who is Judge. And his performance at times, especially as an older and celebrated actor, can only be described as brave. A particular scene between the Judge and Hank in a bathroom is both distressing and joyful because it hits a raw and truthful nerve so successfully. Generally you can pinpoint that all the actors in the film have their best moments in scenes with Duvall.

Director David Dobkin is better known for his comedies like Wedding Crashers, Shanghai Knights and Change-Up than drama. This might explain why the film feels like it has such an unevenness to it. Despite some real glimmers of honesty to life, there is so much in the film that feels unnecessarily complicated, flat and awkward- the dull humour with the sadly stunted younger brother, Hank’s cutesy daughter and an odd plot twist with a girl at the bar. Also a clumsy visual element of bright back-lighting on Downey Jnr and Farmiga’s face to give a soft glow is employed intermittently as if to highlight a sentimental or romantic moment. It ended up reminding me of the old technique used to portray ghosts aka Ghost (1990) or in the Downey Jnr classic Heart and Souls (1993).

The courtroom drama is genuinely gripping with Downey Jnr playing hardball against immaculate "silver-fox" Bob-Thornton and they play entertaining and sophisticated adversaries. To the film's credit, the final wrap-up of the film is not simple and is not saccharine sweet like you would find in other films of this genre. But it is disappointing that a film with such a fabulous cast and some great performances ultimately left me feeling dissatisfied. Watch it for Duvall and the courtroom but you can wait until DVD or Blu-ray. Better yet, go and buy Grosse Pointe Blank with John Cusack. Don’t rent, just buy it and trust me, you will end up enjoying a wildly entertaining and refreshing parody of the American-style “Coming-home-drama”.

The Judge is in cinemas on Thursday 9th October. If you see the film, please share your thoughts below.

- Emily 


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