Downey, Duvall Deliver In Saccharine "The Judge"

“The Judge” is a heap of jigsaw pieces from unrelated puzzles; an atonal mess of a movie that happens to contain bits of genuine compassion and wisdom. Audiences will have to sift through the clutter to find them, but they’re in there, hidden beneath Janusz Kaminski’s overwrought, grandstanding camera work and Thomas Newman’s syrupy score. Kaminski (“Saving Private Ryan”) and Newman (“Skyfall”) are both industry stalwarts entirely mismatched with the material, along with director David Dobkin (“Wedding Crashers”), whose past work shows no predisposition towards weepy Oscar bait. And if “The Judge” has one fatal flaw, it’s just that – its award season aim is as transparent as it is misguided.

The film is a seriocomic piece that sees every bodily fluid imaginable either spilled on screen or referenced, a questionably written mentally handicapped character used as a vehicle for overly convenient flashback scenes, an incest subplot, and ends with Willie Nelson covering Coldplay. Yet, for all its disjointed sentimentality, it remains watchable – compelling, even – to the very end, mostly thanks to a stolid cast that absolutely refuses to be sucked into the muddied tropes that make up the screenplay.

Robert Downey Jr. (“Iron Man”) plays Hank Palmer, small town Indiana boy turned bloodthirsty Chicago-based barrister. Upon hearing of his estranged mother’s passing, he immediately returns home, inevitably crossing paths with his even further estranged father, the beloved Judge Joseph Palmer. Robert Duvall (“Apocalypse Now”) plays the elder Palmer with all the warmth of an ice block, commanding respect without ever giving it, and the two carry large portions of the 140-minute film on ability alone. Vincent D’Onofrio (“Full Metal Jacket”) plays Glen, Hank’s older brother, adding to the pic’s acting prestige.

Jeremy Strong (“Zero Dark Thirty”) supports as the aforementioned mentally challenged Palmer brother, reliably toting a Super 8 camera and reels of film for maximum flashback potential, while Vera Farmiga (“The Departed”) plays Hank’s old girlfriend. The film does silly amounts of legwork to explain why Hank goes back to Indiana by himself – his gorgeous wife has cheated on him and their daughter doesn’t know his side of the family, anyway – ultimately undoing it later on to bring his daughter back into the picture for some predictable feel-good-isms.

But most of the extra story threads can’t undo the good work of the leads, with the film’s central conflict finally coming into focus at the 45-minute mark. The judge is accused of striking and killing a pedestrian in his car – a pedestrian with whom he has a history – and Hank is inescapably sucked into defending his father. A film that begins as mawkish and highly choreographed slowly becomes a solid showcase for Downey Jr. and Duvall, with the latter giving a frequently courageous performance in the face of old age.

In dressing up a father-son drama as a legal procedural, screenwriters Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque get one thing absolutely right – their ferocious depiction of family loyalty rings true. No matter the sins of loved ones, no matter the level of intra-group conflict families breed, there’s something instinctual in our allegiance to blood relatives. Hank might feel justified in loathing his father, but he won’t tolerate it from anyone else. It’s compelling and relatable and makes the core of the film inherently dramatic.

Billy Bob Thornton joins the film late in the game, essentially playing himself as the prosecutor trying to jail the judge. Despite his character’s one-dimensionality, the actor is as magnetic as ever, and he makes the less than propulsive final hour tolerable. It’s not until the final scenes that the picture drags, but even then, Dobkin finds the right note to end on, bringing Hank’s arc to completion – predictably, but it’s satisfying all the same.

Despite rampant roteness and a whole that’s less than the sum of its parts, “The Judge” makes its connection through its smaller moments. It’s utterly unconcerned with being cool, to the point that its disregard for taste becomes a reward in itself. In its attempt to wring blood from a turnip, Dobkin’s film impossibly draws something, as fleeting and unreliable as it is. It’s a bizarre, often foolish film, but not a bad one – and just interesting enough to deserve its audience.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: October 10, 2014
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: David Dobkin
Screenwriter: Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shephard, Billy Bob Thornton, Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Sarah Lancaster, Grace Zabriskie, Denis O’Hare
MPAA Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)