Although Director David Dobkin has much to work with, there's a feeling that we've seen pieces of this done better before: the kid coming back to town to deal with an angry parent, a lost love who still somehow loves the man who left her, the court case with too many twists to keep track. And yet The Judge tries to Frankenstein all these elements into an Oscar contender, produced by Downey and Warner Bros. Sadly, their first effort isn't what I expected.
The Judge mostly fails for two reasons: Downey's rather accelerated way of speaking makes it difficult at times to understand him, as it does in certain scenes from the Iron Man trilogy. I don't remember him suffering so much in earlier films, but it now seems a part of his style. His performance is all over the place, from brilliant in the courtroom to absolutely forced in most scenes with Duvall or D'Onofrio. Even a scene meant for us to feel Hank's freedom - in which he dons an old Metallica shirt and rides a 1980's 10-speed - feels so completely out of the current experiences of his character that I can't accept it.
The other problem centers around the script circus by Writers Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque, and two others: in a world painted with such realistic broadstrokes, The Judge doesn't keep to those rules, bending and sometimes breaking them for effect or necessity. One minute we're watching the real debilitating effects of cancer or Due Process, the next we're witnessing Hank make completely unrealistic decisions about his future, centered around the several-steps-down-the-ladder Farminga.
For someone who holds deep animosities about his youth, he sure seems comfortable reverting to it for a moment of tenderness. You can't take the jerk out of someone, and if it's to be believed that Hank has been so since he left, then the 'transformation' he undergoes by film's end is simply unrealistic. Why change the rules, when you've adhered to them in both the courtroom and in these complicated relationships?
Nevermind, we need to get back to the schmaltz, and there's plenty of it here, in such heaping mounds that it's impossible to keep your shoes clean. Granted, there's also some great lines volleyed back and forth by Duvall and Downey, but Thornton is totally underused, reduced to a simple lawyer with vengeance on his mind. He and Downey are in just a handful of delightful scenes, making me wish our creative team had seen the enormous possibilities of adding a few more.
Other small details also help to bring down the film, especially if you look at it through Oscar-colored glasses. For one, the CGI is downright awful, looking especially bad during the indoor café scenes and on Downey's journey to his hometown. There's also an apparent frozen screen that's simply panned across (the pivotal scene of Duvall and Downey together on a lake). This might be considered nit-picking by some, but it all speaks to the sophomoric tone of the film by a director whose best known work are gross-out comedies like The Wedding Crashers. In fact, this is his first drama and it shows. Oh so painfully.
The Judge is Rated R for language including some sexual references and has a runtime of 141 minutes.
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