Friday, October 10, 2014

In Theaters: THE JUDGE (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by David Dobkin. Written by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque. Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D'Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, Ken Howard, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Emma Tremblay, Grace Zabriskie, Denis O'Hare, Sarah Lancaster. (R, 142 mins)

THE JUDGE is a film that tries to be too many things and succeeds about half of the time. On one hand, it perceptively deals with the idea of family, the ties that bind, the consequences of one's actions, and ultimately, the love that triumphs over the adversity of grudges that have lasted the better part of a lifetime. It's also the kind of glossy courtroom drama that used to be commonplace in the late '80s and into the '90s. Its tonal shifts are whiplash-inducing, including one jawdropper of a subplot that seems more fitting for the raunchy comedies that director David Dobkin has made in the past, like WEDDING CRASHERS (2005) and THE CHANGE-UP (2011). Working from a script by Nick Schenk (GRAN TORINO) and Bill Dubuque, Dobkin throws a little of everything into THE JUDGE, and while he gets outstanding and fully committed performances by his stars, the film too often compromises itself, sacrificing honesty and raw emotion for grandstanding, cliched speeches that ensure every cast member gets some time in the spotlight,  THE JUDGE is the kind of film where it's not enough for things to reach the boiling point for an embittered father and son as they have a knock-down, drag-out screaming match during a family get-together--no, the family get-together has to be in the basement because there's a massive tornado blowing through town, and of course, the argument extends beyond the basement as they take it out into the yard while battling violent winds before heading back into the house again.

Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr), is a hot-shot, high-powered, big-money Chicago defense attorney who has no qualms about getting his guilty clients off ("Everyone wants Atticus Finch until there's a dead hooker in the hot tub," he explains). Devoted to his job and never around for his young daughter (Emma Tremblay), he's in the middle of a nasty divorce after his neglected wife takes up with an ex-boyfriend. All of that takes a backseat when he's summoned to his small Indiana hometown after his mother dies unexpectedly. Hank has never visited after leaving 25 years earlier and has had minimal contact with his older brother Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio), and younger, possibly autistic (it's never specified) brother Dale (Jeremy Strong), who carries a Super 8 camera around at all times, filming everything (Clumsy foreshadowing alert!  Yes, Dale's extensive collection of film reels will hold an important piece of information!). There's no love lost between Hank and the Palmer patriarch, stern local judge Joseph (Robert Duvall), who curtly thanks his son for attending and promptly ignores him. Just as Hank is about to head back to Chicago, he's called off the plane by Glen:  "The Judge," as everyone calls Joseph, has been hauled in by the cops for questioning after a dead body is found in a ditch and his damaged car has traces of the victim's blood and hair in the grille. Complicating matters is that the victim is an area shitbag who was recently paroled after serving a long sentence for killing a girl--which he did only after The Judge gave him a light, 30-day sentence for his earlier harassment of her in the first place. This scandal was the one smudge on The Judge's otherwise exemplary career, and there's overwhelming evidence that he ran down the parolee with the specific intent of killing him. The Judge hires wet-behind-the-ears townie lawyer C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard), who can't stop vomiting before court every morning, and when Kennedy proves too inexperienced to deal with special prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), sent in from Gary, and the kind of impeccably-dressed, merciless attack dog who brings his own expensive, Sharper Image-looking, gadgety metal water glass to court. The Judge reluctantly sets aside his differences with his middle son and accepts his legal services.

When THE JUDGE deals with old wounds reopened by Hank's return, it works very well. There's numerous moments of blunt realism in the way Dobkin and the screenwriters rely on family shorthand to convey things that only a family know but we can perceive. When Hank is greeted by Glen, there's an odd way they won't look at each other and you wonder why Glen half-heartedly uses his left hand for a handshake. That's followed by mention of Glen's once-promising baseball career being derailed by an accident, and though it remains unspoken for most of the film, it's clear that there's some involvement in this accident on Hank's part. Hank ran away and never looked back, and his high-school girlfriend Samantha (Vera Farmiga), who owns the diner she worked in as a teenager, won't let him forget it. Incidents are referenced and they don't need to be fully explained for the audience to grasp the significance they hold in the lives of these characters, and that's where THE JUDGE often excels.

Where it stumbles is when it devolves into various plot contrivances, medical crises, and hackneyed courtroom histrionics. Hank learns early on that The Judge is secretly getting chemo treatments for advanced colon cancer, and it's caused memory issues that come and go as the plot mandates. And after the ludicrous father-son argument in mid-tornado, they of course get a chance to hash out all of their issues on the witness stand, culminating in a guffaw-worthy shot of the trial judge (Ken Howard) starting to tear up. And there's that whopper of a subplot involving cute bartender Carla (Leighton Meester) that appears to be heading in one direction that the filmmakers don't have the balls to attempt in a major studio movie, and yet somehow, the way they explain themselves out of it manages to make it even more awkward given one character's non-reaction and the fact that the whole tasteless episode is played for laughs. On one hand, it's admirable what Dobkin tries to get away with before backtracking, but on the other, it's tacky and doesn't belong in this movie. At 142 minutes, THE JUDGE runs a good 30 minutes too long, and Meester's plot thread could've--and should've--been completely eliminated.

Aside from the writing in its more successful introspective and honest moments, it's Downey and Duvall who carry this through. Downey's persona works perfectly for an unscrupulous lawyer and Duvall, comfortably in his "crusty old coot" wheelhouse, at least has better material to work with than bombs like Thornton's unwatchable JAYNE MANSFIELD'S CAR and the terrible A NIGHT IN OLD MEXICO provided him. There's still an unfortunate desire by mainstream Hollywood to turn geriatric actors into dirty old men, as set forth by the Burgess Meredith Amendment. A feared, respected authoritarian taskmaster like The Judge doesn't seem the type to mockingly chide Hank because his wife "played Hide the Pickle with some other guy." Inconsistencies and assorted silliness aside, THE JUDGE is worth seeing for the performances of Downey and Duvall, but Dobkin has been given a strange amount of leeway in what made it to the final cut. This thing could've used another run through the editing room and quite a bit less overbaked courtroom melodrama. Or it could've settled on being a either a glossy, commercial courtroom thriller or a gritty, in-your-face look at frayed family dysfunction, because in committing fully to neither, it comes up harmlessly entertaining but curiously lacking.

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