My girlfriend LOVES Robert Downey Jr….it’s a fact. Like, loves the man to where she would probably present any of my internal organs on a platter to the dude, upon request, just for the chance to do his laundry. Just sayin. So, when word of this film’s imminent release popped up, she immediately set her heart on catching it on The Big Screen. I’m a lucky fella, in that she has accompanied me to a number of Boy Flicks that she would normally back slowly away from…so it was only fair that I agree to FINALLY being the one dragged along to the theatre. So, right off the bat, my expectations were low. I was, truthfully, indifferent to ‘The Judge’. It seemed to be yet another heavy-handed attempt at a heart-warming (and overly familiar) story of family reconciliation in the midst of turbulent times…and I was right.
The Story opens with ‘Henry’ (Robert Downey Jr.) during a trial in Chicago. We meet the man as he comically pisses on the leg of the prosecuting attorney in the bathroom of the Courthouse, and this dick-headed action instantly establishes him as a slippery and selfishly amoral asshole who has no qualms about dipping into his bag of legal tricks to get even the most guilty of criminals exonerated. During the trial, he receives a disturbing phone call concerning the death of his mother back in his hometown, in Indiana. Naturally, he makes his way there…after we further establish that he is on the verge of divorce from his gorgeous wife and that he has a good relationship with his spunky 8 year old daughter. Rolling into the quaint little stereotype of a town, we are instantly made aware of the contempt that ‘Henry’ has for his stomping grounds of old. Before the inevitably prickly meeting with his estranged father (Robert Duvall), we are first introduced to his two brothers; the younger mentally handicapped ‘Dale’ (Jeremy Strong) and the gruff older brother ‘Glen’ (Vincent D’Onofrio). After the services, he meets up with his father…a meeting that is all tense, clipped pleasantries and avoided eye contact…for reasons we don’t find out till later. Along the way, the family ends up at the local diner / bar, where ‘Henry’ encounters another face from his past, in the form of ex-girlfriend ‘Samantha’ (Vera Farmiga), whom I spent a chunk of the flick thinking was Kristin Wiig (Bridesmaids). Weird, undefined chemistry ensues. SO, funeral duties aside, ‘Henry’ gratefully and enthusiastically makes his escape the next day. While on the plane, on the tarmac, he gets a desperate call from ‘Glen’. A body has been found and their ailing father is the Prime Suspect in the ‘hit n run’ / murder. Grudgingly, ‘Henry’ deplanes and heads back to his own Domestic Personal Hell. And from there, it becomes the standard story of the fight for Dad’s freedom while discovering reserves of decency and love within himself.
‘The Judge’ is a decent-enough flick, but it is certainly NOT the Oscar-contender that it clearly wants to be. There is a lot of shit in this movie that makes little to no sense at all, almost all of it the script’s fault.
Things such as:
-The ‘chemistry’ between ‘Henry’ and ‘Samantha’ is rekindled out of the blue, with seemingly no provocation at all. At first, they’re somewhat antagonistic toward each other, with her still holding a grudge for his disappearance to Law School back when they were young…only a scene or two later, we see them comically breaking into her bar (Why?!) so that she can spoon feed him pie. What the hell?!
-Along the way, ‘Henry’ gets into a heavy petting session with a young and sexy bartender (a useless cameo by Leighton Meester) who turns up for one other scene…and (SPOILER!) turns out to be his niece! This is after he’s led to believe that she MAY be his daughter…based on the timing and the fact that she does the same hair sucking thing that his current daughter does (grounds for a genetic match?!!). It’s pointless, humorless and creepy.
-The mentally-handicapped brother ‘Dale’ conveniently goes around with an ancient Super 8mm movie camera and is working on ‘something’ that later turns out to be a convenient family history montage that suddenly features inappropriate (and plot friendly!) footage of the car accident that led to the ongoing tension in the family. He’s a clumsy stereotype that could’ve been handled in a FAR more original fashion.
-There are sequences of near-slap stick humor that stand out in the midst of the dramatic goings- ons and totally confuse the tone of the flick. There’s an ongoing gag involving the local lawyer ‘C.P.’ (Dax Shepard) and his tendency to puke out of fear in front of the courthouse before EVERY proceeding, for example. It’s childish.
-There is a sequence involving a fierce storm that results in a family ‘moment’ while they cower in the basement. The storm serves no point (aside from maybe a little action to spice up the boredom), and has no lasting effect on the rest of the story.
-The flick has about 5 points where they could’ve ended it to the audience’s satisfaction, but instead they beat us to death with heavy-handed scenes showing how this experience has naturally changed ‘Henry’ for the better. A little ambiguity would’ve gone a LONG way here.
-There is almost no mystery to the trial itself. The outcome is obvious from miles away and really wouldn’t have been all that different had ‘Henry’ NOT opted to represent his father.
There’s more…but I think you get the point.
All in all, ‘The Judge’ is NOT a terrible movie…it’s just not a very good one. Almost every aspect of the story we’ve seen before in other, better films and the overall execution is clumsy and rather uninspired. The acting is decent from nearly everyone, despite the fact that, at times, RDJ comes off like ‘Tony Stark’ slumming it as a lawyer. Not a lot of effort was put into making his stereotype of a character into something fresh and unique…two elements that this flick as a whole could’ve benefited from. ‘Fresh’ and ‘Unique’ don’t come anywhere near this movie. I VERY much do NOT recommend this one for The Big Screen and would only mention it for a boring afternoon on NetFlix.
PS-If you’ve harboured a burning desire to see Robert Duvall graphically liquid-shit himself, THIS is the movie for you! True story.