THE JUDGE (2014)
Director: David Dobkin
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vincent D'Onofrio, Vera Farmiga, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Billy Bob Thornton, Emma Tremblay, Leighton Meester, Ken Howard, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz
MPAA Rating: (for language including some sexual references)
Running Time: 2:21
Release Date: 10/10/14
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 9, 2014
A lot happens to the protagonist of The Judge. Before the plot's inciting incident even occurs, his mother has died, he has to put a case that's gone to trial on hold, his marriage is falling apart, he returns to a hometown to which he never expected to return and finds a family that resents him, and he reunites with an old girlfriend. Also, he makes out with a young woman who, we later learn, may be his daughter. This is all before the father he despises is arrested for murder.
Screenwriters Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque are working under the misapprehension that having things happen to a character is the same as developing that character, so more and more happens to Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) as the story progresses. He becomes so bogged down in stuff that we can barely keep track of it all.
It's no wonder the movie itself fails to follow through on or unceremoniously drops some of these developments midstream. Then, of course, we're left wondering why these threads weren't left on the cutting room floor. In certain cases, like—oh, let's say—a subplot about the main character's possibly incestuous behavior, we have to wonder how Schenk and Dubuque didn't realize after the script's first draft that these developments don't add anything to the characters or the story.
Put these distractions aside, though, and there a strong core story remains. Well, half of one remains, but it's still effective until those two, disparate halves start to bleed together in the movie's climax.
Hank is a hotshot Chicago attorney with an inflated ego to boot. He specializes, according to a prosecutor, in representing clients who are guilty and exploiting the weaknesses of the legal system to aid his clients. "Everyone wants Atticus Finch until there's a dead hooker in a hot tub," Hank says as a way of explaining how his tactics have made him so successful.
As one might suspect, he's only successful on a professional level. His wife (Sarah Lancaster) cheated on him, and they're preparing for divorce. He insists on taking custody of their daughter Lauren (Emma Tremblay), but of course, his wife suggests that he's too busy with his career to really care for the girl. Whatever is happening here is left dangling, since Hank must return to his hometown in southern Indiana for the first time in years for his mother's funeral.
Hank's elder brother Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) once had a promising baseball career ahead of him until an accident involving Hank, and now Glen runs a tire shop. The youngest brother Dale (Jeremy Strong) has a developmental disability. Their father Joseph (Robert Duvall) is the judge in town, and while his children were growing up, he apparently ran his household like he runs his courtroom, which explains why Hank bailed on his family as soon as he could.
Samantha (Vera Farmiga) is Hank's high school girlfriend who has no plans for leaving town, and the bartender (Leighton Meester) he makes out with is her daughter. She never appears again once the seed that she might be his daughter has planted (The truth of their relationship, by the way, is only slightly less creepy and also never directly addressed).
There's a lot going on here, and at first, we can appreciate the screenplay's patience in establishing these relationships. The problem is that, once the primary plot begins, the majority of those relationships don't go anywhere beyond the establishing phase.
The central through line involves Joseph's arrest for the murder of a man to whom he once mistakenly showed leniency. The man was released from prison and killed in a hit-and-run incident, and there's plenty of evidence to suggest that Joseph is responsible.
The primary thrust of this plotline is divided in two: courtroom scenes in which Hank gets to show off his skills and scenes between Hank and Joseph in which they finally address decades of anger and resentment while coming together over Joseph's critical illness. Each works on its own, especially, in terms of the latter, during a difficult scene in a bathroom in which Hank sees his father as a vulnerable human being for the first time. Both Downey and Duvall are fine here, playing stubborn men who refuse to consider the other is right.
The courtroom stuff is familiar but entertaining, particularly a scene of Hank selecting members of a jury based on their most off-putting beliefs. An underutilized Billy Bob Thornton plays the no-nonsense prosecutor who knows Hank by reputation and is almost as much of a shark as his opponent.
When these two threads merge during a ham-fisted scene that has father and son coming to terms with each other in the middle of testimony (after the people in court gasp upon hearing new revelations—as they do only in the movies), we're reminded of how unnecessarily busy the screenplay is and with what little nuance director David Dobkin shows in bringing all of these pieces together. The Judge hammers home every point in its central storyline and has little idea how to handle its ancillary threads. The movie is messy but earnest, but then again, it's really quite messy.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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