Downey Jr and Duvall keep this otherwise cheesy legal drama watchable.
October 13, 2014
Let's just call it here and now: Robert Duvall will be nominated for Best Supporting Actor at next year's Academy Awards. It'll be his seventh nomination, and it'll be entirely deserved. The Man. Can. Act, and in his latest film — The Judge — you get the privilege of seeing that ability up close and incredibly personal.
As the title suggests, Duvall is 'the Judge' — an elderly statesman of the justice system who's presided over the legal affairs of a small town in Indiana for over 40 years. When his wife passes away, the judge dutifully farewells his sweetheart only to then find himself accused of a hit-and-run that very same night.
Thankfully, his high-flying, big-city lawyer son Hank (Robert Downey Jr) is in town for the funeral. Hank is, at least publicly, master of his domain, king of the jungle, pisser on the pants of his opponents. Privately, however, his marriage is crumbling, his daughter pines for more attention and the death of his mother has done nothing to assuage the chasm of estrangement between him and his father.
They can scarcely look each other in the eye, let alone share any form of actual dialogue or physical contact, which makes establishing any form of legal defence markedly challenging. Throw in the attentions of the ex-girlfriend (Vera Farmiga), the grumpy brother (Vincent D'Onofrio), the mentally challenged brother (Jeremy Strong) and the unrelenting prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton), and Hank's already reluctant return home fast becomes an almost unliveable nightmare.
The Judge was directed by David Dobkin, whose previous films have largely fallen into the comedy/action arena (most notably: Wedding Crashers and Shanghai Knights). Here, he wields the direction with a split personality: sometimes hitting home runs, other times swinging and missing with wildly misfiring scenes. When the latter happens (and, regrettably, it's probably more than the former), The Judge descends into by-the-numbers schmaltz and dials up the cheese. Surprisingly this is often in the courtroom scenes where, traditionally, drama is most at home. The revelations are either too insignificant or heavily flagged, meaning the jurors' gasps and gallery's sighs are more comical than convincing.
Downey Jr is well-cast as Hank, bringing the swagger of Iron Man without the bells and whistles to protect him. His scenes with Duvall carry the movie entirely, and whether by design or misstep, every other character becomes little more than background noise. It's not a film with a lot to offer by way of innovation, but it knows how to jerk the tears on more than a few occasions and (despite its unjustifiable length) keeps you engaged enough right through to the end. Most of that engagement, though, comes via Duvall, whose layered and moving performance is right up there with the best of the year.