Tuesday, September 30, 2014

'The Judge' (2014) directed by David Dobkin

The Judge feels like it's fallen out of a time warp.  The tale of a fast-talkin' big city lawyer having to return to his sleepy backwater hometown to defend his judge dad could be ripped straight out of the Golden Age of Hollywood -  you can easily imagine Frank Capra directing this story with Cary Grant as the slick lawyer learning a spot of humility. This corny blend of smalltown romanticism and estranged families learning to love each other is the exact kind of bullshit Hollywood was built on; so how does it go down in 2014?

Our hotshot lawyer is Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr), and he's at odds with his dad, Judge Palmer (Robert Duvall).  Professionally, socially and physically the two are chalk and cheese. Hank lives in yuppie paradise in Chicago and relies on exploiting technicalities and loopholes to keep his wealthy clients from ever seeing trial.  Judge Dad presides over small-town disputes, meting out Solomon-y justice to these simple smalltown folk.  For example, when he has a civil case of non-payment of child support he orders that the man hand over the keys to his new truck to the mother of his child, and that the woman sell the truck.  He recommends a dealer and says to mention his name for a fair price on it.  

Hank is brought back to this sleepy town by the death of his mother.  He despises every minute he's in this jerkwater burg, surrounded by his boring brothers and being studiously ignored by his Dad.  After the funeral he's glad to get out of there; hightailing it onto a plane back to Chicago.  But just as the flight's about to leave his phone rings.  His Dad's been arrested... for murder!

Soon he's defending his own Dad and the two end up in a kind of legal philosophical duel. As defence counsel Hank's job is to muddy the evidential waters, introduce reasonable doubt and pick apart witnesses.  But the old judge runs on clarity, honesty and straightforwardness. Conflict ensues.  You sense that this is the kind of movie that is going to end with hugs.  It does.

It's not that The Judge is a particularly terrible movie, it's just a rather lumbering, ungainly sort of one.  The first half hour or so is interesting enough as they set up all kinds of juicy secrets that we presume will be revealed; a child custody, a mysterious car crash, an autistic brother, an old high school girlfriend, old feuds in the community, illegitimate children and so on. You figure when these beans are spilt we're going to be in for some satisfyingly meaty drama; an expectation further raised by a fine cast that boasts Robert Downey Jr, Robert Duvall, Vincent D'Onofrio and Billy Bob Thornton.

The drama never comes, the mystery fizzles and these great actors are given next to nothing to chew on.  Downey Jr as the lead is never less than fun, but if you've seen his superintelligent chatterbox robot suit designer and his superintelligent chatterbox Victorian detective you can largely imagine what his superintelligent chatterbox lawyer is going to be like.  Downey Jr ends up like a hyperactive mouse scampering around a very small cage - his quadruple espresso performance hamstrung by some very, very ponderous pacing.

Criminally, the film effectively ends at about the two hour mark but proceeds to fart around pointlessly for another twenty minutes.  Not since Peter Jackson's The Return of the King have I seen a film with this many false endings (and that at least had the excuse that it was the finale of a trilogy).  It left me sat there, a vein throbbing on my forehead, silently willing the film to just roll the credits.  But no! Each time you think you're about to escape there's another little coda and round of hugs.  Then - when they did start rolling - it was to some hick cover of a Coldplay song.  Urgh.

Director David Dobkin, aside from sounding as if he was named by Stan Lee, appears to think he's earned some kind of showboating victory lap.  I'll be fair to the guy, his previous credits include mayfly comedies The Wedding Crashers, Shanghai Knights and The Change-Up so this is the closest he's gotten to a prestige flick in his career. On paper you might even peg this as potential awards bait.

It's way too crap for that though.  Though the dinosauric pacing is the fatal blow, additional wounds are caused by Robert Duvall and Vincent D'Onofrio not giving a shit, Billy Bob Thornton being entirely wasted, an autistic brother who is pretty much Rain Man and an overbearing score that instructs you precisely when and how to feel emotion.

Is there anything to recommend?  Well, if you were stuck on a long distance flight, the batteries on your tablet had run out, your phone was running low, you'd finished your book, you can't sleep and you'd already seen everything else the in flight entertainment had to offer then maybe - maybe - plump for The Judge.  If it wasn't for Robert Downey Jr this would be murder to watch.  With him it's merely manslaughter. 


The Judge is released 17th October 2014

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