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The Judge Review: Guilty as Charged

The Judge suffers from too much melodramatic schmaltz to earn our respect or trust.
Among the questions raised during our October movie preview, one included the ensemble court drama The Judge: could Actor Robert Downey Jr. rise above his Iron Man persona and deliver a great dramatic performance, while giving its deep cast their individual moments in the sun? The answer is not the strong yes we would have hoped, with the unnecessarily long film barely having enough to keep our attention.

Hothead defense attorney Hank Palmer (Downey) lives the fast life, routinely getting the charges against his high-priced clients removed. It's not until the sudden death of his mother that Hank must return to his hometown to bury her and deal with the demons from his past. There's his brother Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) whose high profile accident in their youth ruined his baseball career, and the girl Hank left behind (Vera Farminga), who now has a daughter. But it's the complicated relationship with his father Joseph (Robert Duvall) that's left the biggest stain - in short, they despise one another. A bench judge for 42 years, "Judge" is one of the most respected men in town, until he's suspected of running down a man he once sent to prison. As Hank prepares a defense, he learns secrets about his father's health, as well as the arrival of prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), who harbors deep resentment against Hank. With his father's fate in his hands, Hank must make tough choices in order to save Joseph before the truth about his health goes public.

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.

In the end, The Judge is not your typical courtroom drama, filled with plenty of twists that should keep you interested, that is until the human drama takes over. Duvall is very good as is the underused Thornton. It's just too bad that it couldn't remain as honest at the end as it did in the beginning. You certainly do not need to see this on a large-format screen, but for Oscar sakes you'll want to add this to your To-Do list, if only to 'judge' it guilty.

The Judge is Rated R for language including some sexual references and has a runtime of 141 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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