film reel image

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Judge 2014 * * * Stars

The JudgeDirector: David Dobkin
Year: 2014
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga

Taking place in Southern Indiana (you can tell because the landscape is full of foothills) and directed by a guy who is known chiefly for making comedies, The Judge is a long yet briskly paced courtroom drama. The overall plot concerns a hot shot Chicago lawyer who must defend his own father (a longtime judge presiding in a small town via the Hoosier state) against a stone cold murder charge. This mean-spirited, resentful (you could throw in spiteful too) lawyer flies into town initially to go to his mother's funeral. He ends up staying longer than needed when his father's dim-witted counsel can't handle the intensity of the case, a case involving a death by hit-and-run. Robert Downey Jr. plays the big city attorney (Henry "Hank" Palmer) while the legendary Robert Duvall plays his tough as nails, not to mention bullheaded judge father (Joseph Palmer).

As an originally conceived film with a title that averts to something John Grisham would approve of, The Judge didn't really remind me of any other dramas except for its mild sentiment towards certain cliches. You know, the aspects of a rich, well-off lad who comes back to his small hometown after he abandons his family and leaves behind the high school sweetheart that he once loved. And oh yeah, you can also throw in the cranky old timer who wasn't a good father and may or may not be a recovering alcoholic (a la 1982's The Verdict). No matter though. In essence, this is an absorbing, chaotic, messy, yet powerfully realized downer of a movie. It's depressing in its dysfunctional family dynamic and its ending is clearly anti-Hollywood (really not what you'd except). However, there is never a dull moment and at roughly two hours and twenty plus minutes, there's a lot of movie in this movie. You get what you paid for and then some.

The acting is top drawer, all down the line. Downey Jr. and Duvall have only been in the same flick one other time (1998's The Gingerbread Man) and clearly don't look related. But they work well together. Their performances in the lead roles hit you like a ton of bricks. Watching them spar in scene after gut wrenching scene, you feel as if they were actually bear and cub in real life. It's truly intense. And I gotta admit, Robert Downey Jr.'s "Hank" was tough to put up with for the majority of the running time. There's a lot of pent up anger there. There's also lots of moodiness, regret, and narcissism going on. Downey Jr. with his fast talking mannerisms and blatant Tony Starkness (you know, his character from Iron Man), looks like he's going to a bad place with this character. You feel like he could just explode at any minute. His performance is no doubt brilliant but gee-whiz, he could have possibly lightened up a bit. As for the rest of cast, they are solid especially Billy Bob Thornton exuding a sort of menacing cool. He plays the prosecutor in Duvall's character's case who is bent on justice (and the prospect of issuing a murder one charge to boot). Finally, we have Vera Farmiga effectively channeling the token, long lost love interest and Vincent D'Onofrio riffing off his The Break Up role by playing "Hank's" otherwise nervous older brother (Glen Palmer). Oh and by the way, did I mention the hard R language these characters carry off with totally relentless aplomb? This ain't no People's Court. This is indeed 12 Angry Men (and you can maybe count some woman too).

In conclusion, The Judge is pretty meaty entertainment despite a few hiccups along the way. I mean I could have done without a couple of scenes involving projectile vomiting and the sight of runny poop coming out of an 80 plus year old man (note to director David Dobkin: you're not making The Change-Up here. You're making a full-fledged, human drama). Also, I couldn't figure out why Downey Jr.'s "Hank" stayed at his father's storage room (at the Harper family home) during the opening funeral. I mean initially they hated each other, right? So I'm thinking that "Hank" could have at least found a hotel room (even in the small, fictitious hick town of Carlinville, Indiana). Regardless, this early fall release gets a recommendation from me. If you decide to take in a viewing, remind yourself that this film is not just a farce about the fate of a dying man through a handful of jurors. Think of what's on screen as a rekindling of fathers and sons by which the characters have extremely strong personalities and for the most part, are just too bad for each other. My final verdict on The Judge: Guilty, as in you're guilty if you don't check it out at a theater near you.

Written by Jesse Burleson

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