Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Judge Movie Review

The Judge, directed by David Dobkin from a screenplay by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, is a perfect example of soft, flat, non-challenging, placating material that is made to appeal to a demographic of people who watch movie as a means of sedation. Because it stars two very fine actors in Robert Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr., and because it’s a courtroom drama, it is easily digestible to the broadest possible audience.

Every nook and cranny of the story, the dialogue, the character development, the drama, and the revelations is designed with intent to please. Downey is Hank Palmer, a big shot Chicago lawyer. He’s about to face a nasty divorce from his cheating wife (not that he’s without a blemish morally) and has to return home for his mother’s funeral in Indiana. Duvall is his father, the titular Judge Palmer, who has sat on the small town bench for 42 years. Their relationship is non-existent to say the least, a strain caused by years of emotional abuse, neglect, and disregard for Hank’s success. See, he used to be a delinquent and drug user and crashed the car that derailed his big brother Glen’s professional baseball aspirations.

Downey sticks around when his father is arrested for a hit and run. The man he killed, see, is a recently-released murderer whom the Judge initially set free decades ago on a lesser charge. With motive established, the charge is second degree murder. Billy Bob Thornton appears as the prosecuting attorney who wants to see justice served and, because this movie isn’t quite packed to the hilt with enough subplots, also has some absurd score to settle with Hank. There are no real villains, which should be considered a compliment. A lesser movie would have Thornton’s prosecutor be ruthless, conniving, and a de facto bad guy for no good reason. Only the dead guy comes close to being a villain and he’s on screen for only a few seconds.

The whole movie is just obvious down to a wide shot of Hank and his father walking in opposite directions away from Glen’s car when they can’t agree on a defense strategy. This is a movie that lets you think that Hank may have made out with the daughter (Leighton Meester) he never knew he had with a his high school flame, but you also have to know that a movie like this will never leave you feeling that uncomfortable.

There’s occasional fun to be had in the way Duvall is so casually abusive toward his adult sons, including the youngest, who is a little slow in a way you never see outside the movies. And it’s fun to watch Downey freak out with frustration at the way his father’s first attorney, a locally educated country bumpkin played by Dax Shepard who still lives with his mom, mucks up the preliminary hearing.

The courtroom drama aspect gets the details right and it doesn’t feel quite as unbelievable as these things tend to be, but ultimately what transpires in the courtroom takes a back seat to the relationship between father and son. There could be some powerful drama there, but it’s all so superficial and never given room to develop organically amid so many superfluous characters and subplots. Vera Farmiga as Hank’s old girlfriend and Vincent D’Onofrio as Glen are formidable performers loafing through this silly material. Frankly, this is beneath the talents of these great actors. They deserve better than cheap sentiment and screenplay-by-numbers.

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