Judge, The (2014)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/10/14 12:48:14
Upon hearing the title and a brief description of its plot, I suspect that many moviegoers out there may just instantly assume that "The Judge" is an adaptation of one of the many legal thrillers that John Grisham has cranked out over the last couple of decades. Not only does this film have absolutely no connection to Grisham or his work but to suggest otherwise could pave the way for the author to file a suit claiming libel or defamation of character on the basis that even his hackiest efforts have maintained a certain core competence that is utterly lacking here. This is a film that tries to simultaneously be a courtroom drama, a family saga about an estranged father and son coming to terms with their volatile past and a big piece of Oscar bait featuring a number of top actors strutting their stuff in the hopes of snagging a nomination and screws each one up so completely that you'll wonder why someone didn't simply declare a mistrial early in the proceedings and bring the whole thing to a quick and merciful end before it could do too much damage.Robert Downey Jr. stars as Hank Palmer, a slick and high-priced Chicago lawyer who is considered to be a scourge on his fine and noble profession for--gasp--providing a vigorous defense for his clientele that pokes holes in the cases brought against him. In real life, this would be the kind of attorney that you or I would most likely wish to retain but since this is a movie, it is apparent that, despite a good job, a nice home and a loving moppet of a daughter, he is clearly a miserable, soul-dead sort who is clearly in need of some kind of redemption to make him a better person overall as he learns to finally stop and smell the roses and whatnot. No sooner has all of that been established does he learn that his mother has died and Hank returns to his small Indiana hometown for the first time in decade to attend the funeral and see his estranged family--older brother Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio), younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong) and, most estranged of all, his father, the imperious Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), a man who is warm and hospitable to virtually everyone he encounters with the single exception of Hank, for whom he feels nothing but a long-standing resentment for reasons that will surely be revealed in a speech during the final reels.
After a couple of days of taking shit from his father--who will not even let the grieving process get in the way of belittling his son at every turn--Hank finally says the hell with it and is just about to fly home when he gets a frantic call from Glen asking him to come back. It seems that during the night, Joseph went out to the local mini-mart and when he came home, the front of his car was all banged up. To make matters worse, a body has been found that was the victim of a hit-and-run and traces of his blood were found on the car. As a topper, the dead guy is a recently-paroled criminal who once stood before Joseph in a case that ended in great tragedy. Throw in Joseph's insistence that he doesn't remember anything that happened after leaving the store and it comes as no surprise when he is eventually arrested and charged with murder. Against his better judgement, Hank comes back to help the old man but the stubborn coot doesn't want his case to be tainted by any of that fancy-pants lawyering that his son uses in the big city for fear that getting off that way will somehow taint his reputation (though even at this point, there would seem to be more than enough taint to go around) and instead decides to employ a local attorney (Dax Shepard. . . yes, Dax Shepard) who is so green that, in a literal running gag, he throws up outside the courtroom every morning.
While trying seemingly in vain to help his father's case, especially after a powerful prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton) bearing yet another personal grudge against him, Hank settles into the town and life that he though he had long left behind and is quickly reminded why he was so eager to flee in the first place. Joseph and Glen both seem to resent him for leaving and for coming back and as it turns out, there are some dark secrets to be had there regarding a long-ago car accident that changed the life of one of them forever. If you are hoping that all of Joseph's secrets behind his more-than-apparent dislike for his son and his determination to reject all of his seemingly sensible defense approaches--preferably at the same time and preferably on the stand in open court--I daresay you will not be disappointed, at least in this particular circumstance. Outside of the immediate family unit, Hank reconnects with Samantha (Vera Farmiga), the high-school sweetheart that he apparently left behind when he went to a Metallica concert and never came back. Perhaps realizing that being abandoned by a Metallica fan is generally considered a plus, Samantha is cool with Hank's return (except when she is dictated to act otherwise by the script) and even introduces him to her daughter (Leighton Meester), a girl whose parentage is in some question and who has already met Hank under squirm-inducing circumstances.
In essence, "The Judge" plays like a cross between "Regarding Henry" (cold-fish lawyer learns to be a nicer person) and "The Great Santini" (prodigal son in a battle of wills with a hard-ass dad played by Robert Duvall) that has been developed by people who have collectively taken a few too many basketballs to the head. The screenplay from Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque is a cobbled-together beast that contains not a single fresh element other than the occasionally oddball places that it steals things from--while one might expect a story like this to borrow from the likes of "King Lear," I must admit to being startled to find that it also pilfered from the most appalling element of the Adam Sandler misfire "That's My Boy," right down to deploying the same actress in Leighton Meester. Even so, the basic story would be hard-pressed to fill up the allotted slot for an episode of "L.A. Law" and so they proceed to jam in extraneous elements--the stuff involving Meester, all the scenes involving Hank's younger brother, who has some mental affliction and who films everything with an old Super-8 camera and much of the stuff involving Vera Farmiga's character among them--in order to blimp the proceedings out to an unconscionably overlong 140 minutes. As for the big dramatic revelations Scene after scene is handled in a ham-fisted manner that makes sure that every beat and every emotion is spelled out in capital letters for the audience to understand and as for the big dramatic revelations meant to show the Judge's actions in a new light for the long-awaited breakthrough with his son, they are so idiotic and unbelievable that they had the opposite effect for me--they made his character seem like an even bigger ass than before and made Hank's aversion to him seem all the more understandable.
Frankly, the only real element of interest regarding "The Judge" is that it marks the first time that Robert Downey Jr., one of the most unlikely franchise blockbuster stars in Hollywood history, has appeared in a serious-minded, non-superhero, non-Sherlock Holmes context in a long time, maybe since the little-seen "The Soloist." He is easily the best thing about the film--his quirky demeanor and considerable dramatic chops go a long way towards selling the otherwise tired material he is working with--but this is the kind of film that he could do in his sleep. Furthermore, it is more than a little depressing to consider that at a point in his career where he could make literally anything he wanted to and the studios would be clamoring to take it on, the guy who has done such astounding work with such strong and sure filmmakers as James Toback, Curtis Hanson and David Fincher would cheerfully elect to use his power to star in a draggy courtroom drama/dysfunctional family hybrid from the director of "Fred Claus." Duvall, on the other hand, is one of those rare actors who can make even the most inane lines and implausible actions seem authentic and he has to put that ability on overdrive to sell the manure he is dealing with here. As for usually reliable live wires like Farmiga, D'Onofrio and Thornton, they are simply going through the motions and not even their sheer professionalism can liven things up.As dully generic as its title suggests, "The Judge" is a dud that is badly written, dully directed and tonally off-base almost from its very first frames. As a family drama, it is wildly unconvincing and shameless in its numerous attempts to jerk tears by whatever means necessary. As a legal thriller, it is a complete crock and wraps itself up in such an unsatisfying manner that anyone who has invested any amount of interest in this aspect of the narrative is likely to come away from it feeling furious. As a star vehicle for a bunch of good actors, it only makes you wish that they could have held out for something better to collaborate on and in this case, that could be virtually anything. As it plods on (and on and on), most viewers may find themselves wishing for a change of venue--preferably to a theater showing "Gone Girl."
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