Awards season for movies always ends up having a handful of Oscar pretenders in the mix that get weeded out and just don’t measure up to the other movies that are gunning for recognition. The Judge is one of the clearer examples of pure Oscar bait films from 2014 that critical opinion quickly revealed had no real business considering itself an Oscar contender. Aside from a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Robert Duvall from the Academy and a few of the other bigger awards ceremonies, the film was largely ignored during awards season, and rightfully so. The Judge is little more than a dysfunctional family drama dressed up as several types of films rolled into one that hardly excels in anything it is trying to do and clearly has Oscar aspirations that it falls far short of.
Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is a big time defense lawyer in Chicago who is successful and unscrupulous in the courtroom and has a failing marriage at home with a daughter about to be caught in the middle of a custody battle. He receives a phone call from his brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) that his mother has passed away. Hank returns home for her funeral and tentatively reunites with the family that he has been estranged from since he left as a teenager and never looked back. The tension in the family arises from the fractured relationship he has with his father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), who essentially runs the small Indiana town where the family lives. Soon after the funeral, The Judge, as his sons call him, is arrested for murder, having been accused of hitting someone with his car the night of the funeral. Hank stays to advise in the defense of his father with the local defense attorney (Dax Shepard), and eventually to defend his father, when Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), a high-profile state prosecutor, takes on the case. In the process of defending his father, Hank begins to reconnect with the family, the town, and an old flame in Samantha (Vera Farmiga) that he left behind years ago.
The film’s strength lies in the interplay between Downey and Duvall and the way they play with the strained relationship between their two characters. Downey’s Hank is someone who, despite everything, is obviously seeking affirmation from father, and nearly everything he does is done with at least some small intent to impress his father. And seemingly everything he does is met with rebuke and criticism from his father, initially, and even when things between them begin to thaw, old habits are hard to break. There is a tenderness and vulnerability that is sometimes shown by the two, and a cruelty of word and hurt equally displayed effectively. Some of the scenes with Downey and Farmiga work well too, but a lot of that story feels tacked on and nonessential and unnecessary to the story.
Unnecessary describes a few aspects of this film, sadly. There is a completely unnecessary camera sequence that begins with the camera focused in close on Downey driving from the airport to his hometown that slowly pans out in a wide, sweeping way to a wide, flying shot of seeing him driving between two corn fields. I’m not quite sure what the special effects of that shot added to the film and why it was in there. Also unnecessary is the revealing shot of Billy Bob Thornton as the prosecutor, which has the camera keeping him “cleverly” hidden by the bench of the judge until the camera slowly moves to the right to reveal him. These lazy, clichéd camera movements are just a few examples of the film trying for some artistic gravitas and failing.
And the camera work isn’t the only clichéd aspect of the film. The storytelling follows just about every familiar courtroom movie beat you can imagine. And when the film also layers all of these other genres that it dabbles in throughout, those are also clichéd. One of these, the comedy, creates very odd tonal shifts for the entire movie. And then there is the romance that is thrown in to appeal to a female audience that feels tacked on. Since when does a defense attorney in the middle of a murder case involving his own father have to time to go digging through all of his old possessions and find his Metallica t-shirt, go for a bike ride, and woo his old flame?
This is an impressive cast, people who are capable of better than what they are given for much of this. Director David Dobkin is mostly known for comedies. He hit the jackpot with Wedding Crashers back in 2005. Since then it has been diminishing returns from him; Fred Claus and The Change-Up were disappointments. Given how the comedy is sprinkled into this story and how ill-fitting it is, it seems like Dobkin falls back on comedy too easily. Perhaps a director who was more sure of himself would have gotten a better film out of this. The Judge fails because it doesn’t know what kind of movie it is other than “Oscar contender” which it assuredly wasn’t.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars