The Judge (2014) / Drama-Mystery

MPAA Rated: R for language including some sexual references
Running Time: 141 min.

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D'Onofrio, Vera Farmiga, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Ken Howard, Leighton Meester, Emma Tremblay, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Sarah Lancaster
Director: David Dobkin
Screenplay: Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque

Review published October 11, 2014

Hotshot defense attorney from Chicago, Hank Palmer (Downey Jr. Iron Man 3), returns to his small-town Indiana roots when he attends the funeral of his recently passed mother, leaving a high-profile case and a messy divorce in the balance as he sorts out his family issues, namely, his estranged father Joseph (Duvall, Jack Reacher), who is the county's long-presiding judge.  Hank's interaction with his tough-love father re-opens old wounds, but before he can skip town and never come back, he's lured to stay a lot longer when cancer-stricken Judge Joseph becomes a murder suspect after his car shows evidence that it was involved in a hit-and-run incident with a recently released ex-con he is known to despise.

The Judge is sandbagged by a terrible script from Nick Schenk (Gran Torino) and Bill Dubuque, borrowing pages wholesale from the works of John Grisham, which spends an inordinate amount of time meandering through a host of supporting characters we don't need and scenes that add little to the overall story.  One such side thread involves Hank reuniting with his old high school flame Samantha (Farmiga, At Middleton), along with her spirited daughter Carla (Meester, Flourish), a bartender with whom Hank has already had a make-out session with in his first night in town (I guess mother's funeral isn't much of a preoccupation).  Then there are the scenes with his soon-to-be ex (Lancaster, "Witches of East End"), and his precocious daughter Lauren (Tremblay, The Giver) comes to visit for a spell. 

Furthermore, there are Hank's brothers, Glen (D'Onofrio, Escape Plan) and Dale (Strong, Parkland), with the former a baseball phenom who saw his career go down the tubes before it could begin in a terrible car accident, while the latter mentally disabled brother (his disability seems to be used mostly for comic relief in this film) shoots a never-ending stream of super-8 film that gets shown whenever there needs to be a poignant moment thrown in.  And there are scenes that bookend the film in which smug douchebag Hank has conversations in the restroom with Mike Kattan (Krumholtz, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay), one of which involves one man urinating on the other.

This is the kind of overstuffed story that one usually only sees in the first episode of a proposed television series, where we have the benefit of seeing how the various threads all unfold over the course of one or more seasons.  But in a movie that really is already encroaching near the 2.5 hour mark, plenty of these superfluous side stories could have easily been trimmed, and would have made the sprawling storyline far more tolerable to sit through.  There's even time for a lot of consuming of the candy morsel, Bit-O-Honey, but I wouldn't consider it a ringing endorsement of the product when those who consume it have mental and physical ailments, including nausea and colon cancer,. It can even be implied that it even led to the instant death of one character.

David Dobkin, whose prior credits include the sophomoric comedies The Change-Up, Fred Claus, and Wedding Crashers, is way out of his element trying to put together a credible, gripping drama.  Interestingly, for a man who built a career in comedic works, the attempts at comedy are weak (much like his actual comedies, come to think of it), and don't quite jibe with the seriousness of the rest of the piece.  It's an uneven film as it is without all of the tonal shifts involved in trying to up the entertainment quotient.  The movie is badly in need of additional editing, and the cinematography by Janusz Kaminski (Lincoln, War Horse) is too showy, stepping on the toes of the story with oversaturated backlighting and computer generated wheat field images (scenes shot inside of moving vehicles look especially fake) that are meant to break up the monotony of the movie's dearth of varied locations.

The only reason to see The Judge is for the fine work by Downey and Duvall, who actually make some thinly defined characters look and feel three-dimensional.  One particular scene involves a tough-to-watch bathroom visit by Joseph, whose cancer is in full swing, resulting in the expulsion of waste out of every major orifice (one of about a half-dozen puke scenes in the film -- emetophobes, take note!), while Hank nobly assists.  It's a powerful scene, even if not germane to the main plot, but it's important for the underlying thematic material of how family is still important even when disagreements persist. The supporting cast is fine, but none of them feel like they live up to the potential of their initial inclusion, especially Billy Bob Thornton (The Baytown Outlaws) as the hired gun on the prosecution; he's only formidable because the actor is formidable and not because of anything he's shown to do on the screen.

But even these two amazing actors can't save hackneyed scenes, especially in the courtroom, where the most liberal amount of grandstanding and disregard for the rules of procedure come into play, as we basically just start watching two men hash out their personal differences while one examines the other on the witness stand, and the courtroom spectators ooh and ahh to punctuate each barb they consider important.  Had this just been a domestic drama about a slick lawyer coming to terms with his past, there might have been an inroad to truthful chords, but this kind of heavily manufactured screw-turning keeps it all in the realm of artificial and clichéd.  Nevertheless, when Duvall and Downey are on the screen together, the fireworks occasionally fly, but there are far too many duds in the mix to consider The Judge a successful case.

Qwipster's rating::

©2014 Vince Leo