Robert Downey Jr. said in an interview that he was a lock for a nomination for The Judge. Frankly, I can kind of see why. I won’t go as far as to say that it’s one of my favorite performances of the year but in a better movie I can see him and Robert Duvall getting nominations for their excellent work in this movie. Sadly, this is one of those movies where if you take away all of the great cast, you are left with a flat, bland melodrama that feels like 2 and a ½ hours of watching a Hallmark movie with a group of relatives, it’s long, uncomfortable and emotionless.
Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is an intelligent yet arrogant lawyer who only cares about money. After he finds out his mother dies, Hank returns to his hometown to catch up with his two brothers and his bitter, stern father (Robert Duvall) who he resents. When it turns out that his father may or may not have killed somebody, Hank must become his lawyer and keep him from going to jail.
Picture in your mind the kind of movie that would play on Bravo in the middle of the day on a Tuesday. Everything you have in your mind comes close to the experience of watching The Judge. There is not a single thing about this movie screenplay or directing wise that comes off as an inspired or original idea. When you first hear the premise, you may think to yourself that it sounds like at least a half way decent movie. There is enough room for you to show a complex character driven, courtroom drama that drives into the relationship between these two very different people, one a respectable authority figure and the other a cynical, self-centered worker. There are moments throughout where you can almost see glimpses of an original concept that could be accomplished if the writer had the nerve to go out of the boundaries. These brief times don’t make up for how the movie never escapes what it so clearly is from the first second.
There’s nothing three dimensional about any of the characters and most of them are as well written as the definitions of the tropes they come off as at first glance. There’s the smug, evil lawyer prosecuting Hank’s dad, there’s the whimsical, possibly autistic brother who records everything, you have the assistant to Hank who is a wacky, small-town guy and then there’s the oldest brother who’s into sports. Every character in this movie has been done a thousand times and the screenplay doesn’t go out of its way to make them more than just clichés you would expect in this type of lifeless, small town, family drama.
There was never a place where this movie went that surprised me and I feel I was able to predict at least 75% of everything that happened, the other 25% of stuff being stuff so horrifically sentimental, vomit inducing and cheesy that I gave the movie at least enough respect to believe that it wouldn’t go there. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, a big city lawyer has to go to a quirky, small town. First he doesn’t like being there but then he begins to find a delightful, charm in it, rinse and repeat. Concept and performances can only take you too far when you’re dealing with something as forgettable as this. The Judge also should be proud of its terrible sense of humor. Whereas Tusk was juvenile and stupid comedy, the humor here is so shockingly, obvious that it doesn’t make any sense. This movie is dry humor at its worst; the jokes are so flat and witless that they make those campy, fun dad jokes on the internet look like Louis C.K. It’s the kind of jokes your grandmother would get a slight chuckle out of while knitting a sweater. The food equivalent of this screenplay is refrigerated, 1 week old, chicken soup, every joke, every character, every story arc can be seen from a mile away and the writers absorb every stereotype, every trope, and every overused plot device rather than try to move themselves away from that stuff.
The directing doesn’t help either, David Dobkin directs with this very heavy, overly serious style that makes it even more energy-less and lacking in originality. The music by Thomas Newman is awful; it’s every late 90’s, melodrama score fathomable. You play this music usually for stern, health insurance ads that are trying to sell you something that is safe. It’s not often where we get back to back movies that bring out how much better a score can make a movie (Gone Girl) and how much worse it can make it (this one). Again, Dobkin embraces exactly the kind of movie that this looks like, a stale, forgettable family drama, and he does it without a single drop of passion. I will give this movie one credit; this movie was not nearly as painful as I thought it would be to sit through. Don’t get me wrong, this movie feels long but I think the editor did the best that he could with the garbage he was given. The story for as bad as it was did kept the ball rolling at least and I never wanted to choke to death on popcorn because of how boring it was which is definitely better than what can be said for snooze fest of The Monuments Men.
There is one thing keeping this from 1 and ½ stars: the cast. It still baffles me how they could get such a talented group of actors to do such a great job in such a huge waste of time. Surprisingly, none of the actors are sleepwalking their way through their roles. Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall are both at their best here and they both get to show off why they are believed to be such acclaimed and praised performers. Duvall gives one of his best performances in years here and Downey continues to be one of the most charismatic actors working in Hollywood today, in a weak supporting year, Duvall would probably get in regardless of the quality of the feature. The rest of the cast is good from Vera Farmiga to Billy Bob Thornton who fresh off of his incredible, career best turn in Fargo. All of this combined disappoints me how a director and a writer can be so bad and yet the cast is so good.
Without a doubt, The Judge is your average Hallmark movie with a budget and an admittedly amazing cast. Prepare for a journey of sheer blandness with every dumb, obnoxious, drama trope thrown in. Comparing it to other recent, dramas that weren’t good, it’s not as boring as The Monuments Men, not as annoying as August: Osage Country and not as offensive as Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, but it’s still pretty bad based on how much it sticks to the checklist with no attention to memorability. 80 years from now, The Judge will play once more on a classic movies channel at 3 am in the morning, only 50 people will be watching it with little to no focus and then when it ends the movie will never be heard from or watched ever again.
Release Date: 10/10/2014
Directed by: David Dobkin