Dave White
The Judge Review

Dave's Rating:

2.0

141 minutes in jail

[NOTE TO READERS: Dave White is out of the country. Review written by Witney Seibold.]

Director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, The Change-Up) is trying his durndest in his latest, The Judge. His team is ready: famed cinematographer Janusz Kaminski sun-dapples the heck out of every shot. Composer Thomas Newman plinks his way into something approaching emotional honesty. In the lead role, Robert Downey, Jr. handily displays his usual and long-familiar flip-bastard-with-a-heart-of-gold, distracting you with tears. The mere presence of film legend Robert Duvall might be enough to trick you. Indeed, the project is stuffed full of impressive thespians, including Vera Farmiga as a heartbroken childhood crush, Vincent D'Onofrio as an ailing baseball never-was, Dax Shepard as the amazing invisible supporting actor, and Billy Bob Thornton as a bizarrely sinister courtroom iteration of a James Bond villain. Seeing these people on screen might fool you into thinking The Judge has a shot at being good. It does not.

The Judge is, in fact, a gooey experience, lousy with clichés and rife with awkward family-togetherness moments that look genuine on the paper, but ring false. The premise is strained and artificial, the execution so shamelessly full of emotional bombast, that one cannot help but make snarky comparison to Satan's Alley, the fake Robert Downey, Jr. indie drama featured at the head of Tropic Thunder.

The judge in question is justice Joseph Palmer (Duvall), a stern and humorless taskmaster who's been meting out hard justice in his Rockwellian municipality for decades. When his wife dies, his three sons, Hank (Downey, Jr.), Glen (D'Onofrio), and simpleton Dale (Jeremy Strong) return to their hometown for some much-needed bonding. Hank hates his father for being cold and distant, but when Joseph (accidentally?) runs down a murderer he failed to convict years previously, Hank decides to stay in town to act as his defense lawyer. This will lead to a scene wherein an emotional catharsis between cancer-riddled father and softening son will be provided by an in-court cross-examination. Not since Patch Adams has a courtroom felt so corny.

At a protracted 141 minutes, The Judge is far too much. Did we really need the subplot with the local, less experienced lawyer (Shepard) who contributes nothing at all to the story? How about the romance with the old flame (Farmiga)? Downey and Farmiga are both powerfully charismatic performers, capable of playing both richly layered and playfully shallow, depending on the job, so it's something of a wonder why these two great actors have so little romantic chemistry. They kiss, and it looks like two cousins getting it on.

Dobkin doesn't so much gently ease into the sappiness as beset the audience with a fusillade of maple syrup balloons. While it's slicker, and much easier on the eyes, than something like the ultra-bland, confessional, This Is Where I Leave You, The Judge still operates in the idiom of cheap emotional shots. The actors are doing their best(ish), and the director – stretching into this sort of hefty dramatic material for the first time – would like to communicate feeling, but no amount of body-switching comedy can prepare a filmmaker for the task of delivering honest emotional content.

At least the manipulation can occasionally lead to some amusing moments: Thornton plays the vaguely evil hotshot prosecutor sent into to convict Joseph, and he is lit in amusingly exaggerated, stark beams of light, as though he were Dracula. And just as certain villains will fiddle with a Zippo cigarette lighter, or expertly wield a butterfly knife, Thornton's character threateningly whips out a custom-made, shining steel, collapsible drinking cup, an object that has never felt so weaponized. In a bloated mess like this, you take your cinematic moments where you find them.

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