22 October 2014

Review: THE JUDGE

This one has Robert Downey Jr in it as a fast-talking lawyer. Robert Duvall plays his father, the titular judge, and the supporting cast is rounded out by the likes of Billy Bob Thornton, Vera Farmiga and Vincent D'Onofrio. On the surface, it has everything going for it, so how on Earth did I manage to forget that I'd seen it just two days after? Sudden amnesia isn't the reason why we've had so few posts on here lately, but the forgettable quality and lack of buzz don't bode well for The Judge sticking around long enough to garner the Oscar recognition that it's openly courting.

Hank Palmer is an unscrupulous hotshot lawyer who revels in only defending rich, guilty clients. Estranged from his wife and about to enter into a custody battle for his young daughter, he is dealt another blow when he discovers his mother has died. He treks back to his home town in Indiana for the funeral for a flying visit, but when his father Joseph runs down and kills a man in his car, Hank becomes embroiled in the defence in a case where mounting evidence of malice aforethought and his own personal demons threaten total defeat.

It's a good setup, if not an unfamiliar one- it's On Golden Pond by way of Doc Hollywood and its thematic daddy issues have long since been played out in the male-dominated Hollywood industry. As with many of these Oscar bait movies, the performances are routinely excellent- the acting categories are amongst the biggest and these films are always eager to give actors a shot at showcasing their best work. So just as anyone could predict, the pairing of Downey and Duvall as father and son is utterly compelling in its volatile chemistry.

Robert Downey Jr was born for this kind of conflicted, less-than-squeaky-clean leading man and in his portrayal of Hank, he's clearly hungry for a role that doesn't involve Sherlock-fu or building suits of armour. Duvall, effectively playing the co-lead, also gives an affecting turn as the abrasive but honourable father figure who has almost always put the law before his own sense of justice. As if enough conflict doesn't arise from their fraught history between Hank and Joseph, which is teased out in dribs and drabs in the run-up to a barnstorming emotional showdown, there's also sterling work from Billy Bob Thornton as the nominal antagonist, a prosecutor who has gone out of his way to see justice done and wipe the smirk of Hank's face in the process.

There's more than enough meat there for a solid courtroom drama with a strong through-line about family. But courtroom dramas are weirdly like musicals- they have the same necessity for a long running time because, as with musical numbers, it takes more time to tell a story during a trial, with all of the lengthy dialogue and cross-examination that it entails. So there's no need for padding, and the unnecessary padding is where the film starts to come undone.

For starters, dealing with male issues as it does, it's got an intellectual macho-ness to it that doesn't really extend to a more enlightened view of Vera Farmiga's old flame and Leighton Meester as a character who may or may not be Hank's daughter. The resolution of that sub-plot is so mishandled, you almost expect to see Downey left hanging as he awaits a high five at the end of it. This is to say nothing of Jeremy Strong as Hank's younger brother Dale. Strong does fine with a difficult role, but his character is utterly redundant to a plot with more than enough complications and his presence in the script seems counter to Downey's character's own advice about Oscar baiting in Tropic Thunder.

Downey played a big part in getting this made, hyping it up as one of the best scripts he's ever read, but Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque seem to veer well away from their killer central premise and David Dobkin (better known for similarly indulgent films like Wedding Crashers and The Change-Up) has a very slack grip on the helm. And so, as with many of these slightly off, would-be awards contenders, the performances are the most worthy aspect.

The thing is, The Judge is perfectly on the whole, with sweet and funny scenes dotted throughout and some terrific interplay between Downey and Duvall, and also between Downey and Thornton. It just doesn't have a hope of getting any kudos from the Academy, and yet there were times when I wished I wanted anything as much as this film wants an Oscar. Fishing is a key motif throughout the film and while it's unfortunate that it seems so intent on fishing itself, there are occasional nibbles at greatness that prove frustrating in the final result.

The Judge is now showing at cinemas nationwide.
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If you've seen The Judge, why not share your comments below? I will concede that it has an Oscar-worthy tagline- "Defend Your Honour."

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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