ROBERT DOWNEY, JR. ROBERY DUVALL VERA FARMIGA BILLY BOB THORNTON VINCENT D’ONOFRIO
In films like Iron Man that have catapulted Robert Downey, Jr. to the nation’s highest paid actor, more is probably more. For a film like The Judge I, which aims to bring Downey back down to earth, it misses the mark with too many scripted obstacles in the way of good performances and an organic story. Since it was produced by Downey and his wife, I am surprised he allowed a film like this to spiral so out of control. The script throws in an unnecessary number of subplots and overly exaggerated symbolism, and the director seems unwilling to make the right decisions. Downey is one of the most charismatic actors in the business, so it’s impossible not to be warmed by his charm even while hating the film as a whole.
Summoned back to the small Indiana town that he tried so hard to escape and forget, Hank Palmer (Downey) returns home for his mother’s funeral. Before he leaves the city, he explains the difference between “grandma being dead”, and “grandpa being dead to him”. Hank’s father, Joseph (Duvall), is the reigning judge and supreme moral authority in the town. He will hug Hank’s older and younger brothers, but only shake Hank’s hand, and he never makes eye contact. Directly after the funeral, Joseph is arrested for the murder of a local man with a long back-story. Finally now, Hank’s father will not only have to answer some hard questions, but come clean on the distance that has grown between them—all from the witness stand.
The film opens with Hank driving a rental car down a long stretch of highway through cornfields (Massachusetts doubling for Indiana); however, if you look carefully, the camera pans away like an action film revealing a very CGI-like long shot that seems out of place for this drama about family, neglect and hatred. The Judge is just the latest film to mirror the themes, setup, and blueprint of August: Osage County. Three siblings, hateful old parent on medication dealing with the loss of a spouse, and the lead of the film dealing with a deteriorating marriage. It’s the same film, just gender-flipped. Of course, The Judge can’t stay in one place on one subject, as in August, because it can’t decide if it wants to be a courtroom drama, a family drama, or a comedy about dysfunction.
From the moment the story starts forming, you can see the eventual reconciliation forming on the horizon. Subplots, including Hank’s making out with the daughter (Leighton Meester) of his old flame (Vera Farmiga), a fishing boat sequence, and the ridiculous inclusion of Dax Shepard’s character, do nothing but avert the audience’s attention from the family dynamic and the court room tension where the film is at its strongest. Duvall is playing well the only thing he can play at this point in his career, and Farmiga is a delight each time she is on screen. However, The Judge deserves a more respectable script and better direction to deserve the tears it so desperately wants to get out of its audience.
Final Thought – A weak script, entirely too many distracting subplots, but good performance from Downey make this a mixed bag.
By: Dustin Chase