by Sherry Lipp
With so much talent involved, you’d expect much more than the rambling melodrama that is The Judge. The film stars Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall as a father and son who are perpetually at odds with each other. The Judge attempts to tell the story of a dysfunctional family forced to come to terms with itself, but in its utter lack of focus it fails to ever come to any real point.
Downey plays Hank Palmer, a hot shot Chicago defense attorney who cares more about winning than justice. When a prosecuting attorney asks how he can live with himself knowing his client is guilty he replies with something along the lines of, “I live with myself just fine. Innocent people can’t afford me.” I’m not really sure what is supposed to be meant by that other than this character enjoys making money so much he doesn’t care if guilty people go free. That might be fine if we are supposed to hate this character, but we aren’t. We learn pretty quickly after that the Hank loves him mom, his young daughter, and that his wife cheated on him.
It’s a muddled beginning and it doesn’t get much better from there. After Hank’s mom passes away (not a spoiler, this has already happened at the start of the film), he must return home to small town Indiana for her funeral. He has an icy relationship with his father Joseph Palmer (Duvall) who is a judge and there’s a lot of tension between him and his older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio). Hank also has a mentally challenged younger brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong), who is sadly used as very unneeded comic relief.
When the judge is accused of vehicular homicide, Hank is forced to stay in Indiana instead of returning home to Chicago. From that point on the film introduces a bunch of loose ends and never follow through on any of them. Is the judge guilty? Is Hank still in love with his ex-girlfriend Samantha (Vera Farmiga)? What about Samantha’s daughter Carla (Leighton Meester), who happens to be the same age as the number of years since Samantha and Hank broke up? The film spends so little time with these elements it’s hard to care about any of them.
The Judge is a soap opera condensed into a two hour and forty minute film. And despite the multitude of storylines it drags at a snail’s pace. The best scenes are in the courtroom where we have Dax Shepard as an in-over-his-head defense attorney and Billy Bob Thorton as an out-for-blood prosecutor. Unfortunately these actors are underutilized and don’t get the screen time they deserve. This film could have been a gripping courtroom drama and an exploration of broken relationships, instead that is cast aside for insipid melodrama. In the end I was left wondering why I had spent any time with these characters.
However, I can’t complain about the special features. One of the highlights is a 22-minute making-of that features director David Dobkin and most of the cast, including stars Downey and Duvall, in a round table discussion about the making of the movie. The conversation is casual and doesn’t goes beyond the enthusiastic hyperbole of many making-of featurettes. Also included is the short featurette, “Getting Deep with Dax Shepard,” deleted scenes with optional director commentary, and a feature-length director commentary.
Photos: Warner Brothers