It sounds good on paper, looks even better on a theatre marquee: box-office Bobs chewing scenery and spitting it back in each other’s eyes in a father-and-son courtroom showdown. Robert Downey Jr.’s blistering tongue vs. Robert Duvall’s booming authority. You’ll want to think back to The Judge the next time you’re inclined to bet on a sure thing. There’s no such thing – especially in the movie business.
The Judge gives the sense of resting on its casting laurels. In addition to Downey Jr. and Duvall, the film is well-stocked with showboats – wonderful, unpredictable, personal actors like Vincent D’Onofrio, Vera Farmiga, and Billy Bob Thornton, for starters, but even down to bit players like the idiosyncratic Grace Zabriskie. But clever deployment of talent must extend beyond casting. A legal drama of this ilk needs to be all there on the page before production begins, and a steady vision should guide its course. The screenplay by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque relies on tired cliches and minimal legal intrigue, and director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers), who also gets a story credit, hasn’t a clue as to how to light this thing up. It’s as if out of fear of an uncontainable explosion, Dobkin tried his darndest to tamp down all the combustible elements. Instead, he ends up with a wet stick of dynamite.
Duvall is the small-town Indiana judge who has always been tough on his three sons. Middle son Hank (Downey Jr.) fled to Chicago but returns home after an absence that dates back to his teenage years to attend his mother’s funeral. Tempers roil on a steady, low heat, but are kept in check by the decorum of the occasion. Bit by bit, tantalizing nuggets of past history are revealed as Hank interacts with his brothers (D’Onofrio and Strong, both terrific) and his high school girlfriend (Farmiga) and her daughter (Meester). Then, the judge gets into a legal scrap of his own, which threatens his 42-year legacy on the bench – and middle son Hank dutifully steps into the breach. Still, it take a while for the simmer to reach its predictable full boil.
The film is not an auspicious debut for Team Downey, the new production company helmed by Downey Jr. and his wife Susan. It’s easy to the project’s gravitational pull, but the script is simply not up to snuff. Filtered backlighting is poured into nearly every scene, and though it’s a specialty of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan), the effect merely adds visual drama to scenes in which there’s little narrative drama. With columns of light flooding the courtroom and ceiling fans whirring above the second floor balcony, you can picture Clarence Darrow or Atticus Finch here instead arguing for the defense. That To Kill a Mockingbird was Robert Duvall’s first screen role adds to the sense of The Judge merely repeating classic courtroom tropes. The only one, ultimately, to come out of this with a career boost is Dax Shepard, as the local attorney who realizes he’s in over his head. Tamping down this funnyman reveals him in possession of untapped talents as a light comic actor.
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