The Judge is not a film that has sat easily with me, likely due to just how excited I was when the first trailer dropped. Robert Downey Jr. is one of my personal favorite actors, and despite just how wonderful I find his Tony Stark, I was ready for him to break free of Marvel Universe fanfare for a while and do some work that harkened back to his early-to-mid 2000s work, when he was picking some of the most interesting films of his career. While I believe he and the rest of the cast do a tremendous job in the film – despite a script full to the brim with hackneyed speeches and declarations and awkward exposition – there’s so much more that could have been done to showcase just what he can do.
The same can be said for the film as a whole as well as its talented cast, aside from maybe Robert Duvall, who gets the true “showy” role of the film.
The story focuses on the jaded Hank Palmer, a hotshot lawyer, who must return home after the death of his mother. While there, his father, a judge in the small town, is suspected of a murder that traces back to one of his older and more controversial cases. While trying to defend his father’s honor, he also reconnects with the family he left years ago.
There’s also a storyline about an old romance with a woman, played by a severely under-utilized Vera Farmiga; a divorce between Hank and his ex-wife; old tensions between Hank and his older brother, played beautifully and with subtlety by Vincent D’Onofrio; and the mystery of Joseph Palmer and his failing memory.
Quite a bit to take in, and with the lackluster direction of Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin, this film doesn’t start in the most confident manner. Tight close-up shots of familial memorabilia fill the frame as the beginning moments open the film, sepia-toned and bathed in sunlight, and then we’re thrust into stock footage of big city life with sweeping overhead shots of towering skyscrapers. It’s jarring, and begins the film with the hurried pace to which we will become accustomed in the following two hours.
For a film that stuffs in about as many plot points and as much melodrama and climatic moments as possible, I still left the theater itching for something more – something less exploitative and more cinematic. The biggest misstep that this film took was employing the strategy of throwing everything out in the rough draft, hoping it would stick, and then changing nothing from first draft to final cut.
The Judge is exhibit A of what wasted potential looks like, and just how frustrating it is to see play out. Underneath the moments of overtly sentimental dialogue, the schmaltzy visual metaphors and the five different endings, is a tremendously well done father-son story; it’s too bad it’s bogged down by ten pounds of garbage.
There are about four different storylines here worthy of their own film, but instead are crammed into a 2 ½ hour film. The storyline between Hank and his brother could have been enough to create an interesting dynamic. We could believe that D’Onofrio was the one left behind to take care of a family he genuinely loves, while also lamenting the past and the glories he missed out on, all the while watching his screw-up brother succeed in life with nothing tying him down. It could have focused on the romantic portion and let Downey and Farmiga bring life to a stilted script with their effortless and lived-in chemistry.
However, the real storyline that deserved central focus is that between father and son, and despite the entire premise being wrapped around that dynamic, it’s still in short supply. Downey and Duvall are never better in the film than when they’re verbally sparring with one another, each trying to edge the last word in, each trying to dig the deepest and leave the most harmful wound. These are two resentful men, each believing the other has caused harm to them, each one stubborn and bitter and in no rush for reconciliation. The underlying truth of their destructive relationship is one of the few moments of poignancy in the film, and to watch these two phenomenal performers act against one another is almost worth digging through the rest of the nonsensical storylines to get to. There’s palpable heat behind their words that makes every insult ring true.
Too bad we couldn’t have just watched them, and it’s the disappointment of the “what could have been’s” that had me leaving the theater so frustrated. That and a character who obviously ails from some mental disability, but the film isn’t brave enough to address what it is and instead uses the character as not only a figure of sympathy, but one for cheap laughs and exposition purposes as well. It’s this character and the lopsided tone of the film that makes it already feel dated.
The story is convoluted, and they use just about every cliché in their arsenal. They have Downey giving off his signature quips with his manic and lively energy all the while asking him to anchor the film, which sobers up abruptly. It’s a lot to ask of one film, and despite the failings – and there’s plenty of them, obviously – there’s so much that could have worked that I can’t simply fail it. As I mentioned, there’s a good film here, and you get a sense of just how heartfelt it’s supposed to be. It’s those moments of heart and father and son moments of clarity that keep The Judge from being a downright failure, instead allowing it to be a well-intentioned mess.
I wanted to like The Judge, and I can’t say I did, but I don’t know if I’d write it off all together. The film is released Friday, October 10th.