Review: The Judge + Video Review!
PLOT: An unscrupulous defense attorney (Robert Downey Jr.) who returns home after his mother dies, becomes forcefully reacquainted with his estranged Judge father (Robert Duvall) when the old man is accused of murder.
REVIEW: Robert Downey Jr. is one of those guys whose acting ability we sometimes take for granted. He's so effortlessly cool as Tony Stark that we forget how skillful and charismatic those performances actually are. When a big dramatic piece like THE JUDGE comes along, we sit back and say "wow, what a great performance," as if he's never as good as this in his comic books movies, which isn't so. Nevertheless, there is something refreshing about seeing him in a no-frills, no eye-candy, straightforward character piece, where the whole film rests on his shoulders. THE JUDGE is his first full-on drama in a long time, and he's terrific in a tailor made part.
Typically, a Hollywood courtroom drama revolves around a crusading do-good attorney. With Downey Jr in the part, you know he's not exactly going to be playing Atticus Finch. He plays a truly unscrupulous lawyer, who we're introduced to as he's in the process of defending a Bernie Madoff style white collar thief. He has no qualms about his job, and isn't plagued by any discernible conscience. That Downey is still able to make him likable and even lovable says something right there. Once we dive into the case, the prosecutor played by Billy Bob Thornton makes it clear that in many ways, Downey Jr. and his accused murderer father are actually kind of the bad guys, and director David Dobkin, who's mostly known these days for broad comedy, doesn't shy away from the grey area of their case.
However, don't be mistaken and think this is a John Grisham style thriller. Really, the court case is secondary and there's no big mystery to be solved. It's first and foremost a complex father-son story, with the main hook being whether or not Downey and his surly estranged father will be able to come to terms with each other, and not whether he'll go to jail.
Robert Duvall makes for juicy sparring partner with the always verbose Downey Jr. He convey the attitude of a guy who immediately sees through his swagger and THE JUDGE's ultimate success lies in the fact that you want these two guys to sort out their issues with each other, even if both are headstrong and often exasperating.
However, THE JUDGE is not wholly successful. For one thing, the Downey Jr character's brothers are almost completely extraneous to the film. While Vincent D'Onofrio as the judge's favoured son serves a purpose in that an accident involving him led to the estrangement between Duvall and Downey Jr., the youngest son, played by Jeremy Strong is a bizarre addition. He's portrayed as mentally handicapped, but it seems like a shameless way to wring a little extra sentiment out of the film, made worse by the fact that he's obsessed with making 8mm home videos of the family. There's at least three or four scenes where people watch his videos with tears in their eyes as a ballad fills the soundtrack. The same thing goes for Vera Farmiga as Downey Jr.'s nominal love interest, with an especially icky, slightly incestuous subplot with her daughter (played by Leighton Meester) going nowhere. All of this could have been cut down significantly, which would have helped THE JUDGE come in at a more manageable length, rather than the current bloated 141 minute running time.
While THE JUDGE is unlikely to be any kind of Oscar contender, it still has the makings of a commercial success for Downey Jr. It's schmaltzy and occasionally shameless in its attempts to tug at your heartstrings, but it can't be denied that the film often works and is always entertaining. It's far from perfect, but it's a solid crowd-pleaser.
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