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So as you know, I stopped writing lengthy reviews on this site this year, keeping the blog as more of a film diary of sorts.  Lo and behold,...

Friday, October 17, 2014

Movie Review - The Judge

The Judge (2014)
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D'Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, and Clint Howard 
Directed by David Dobkin

How anyone was expecting The Judge to be a prestige picture seeing as how the man behind the camera brought us flicks like Fred Claus, Shanghai Knights, The Change-Up, and Wedding Crashers is befuddling to me.  Pre-release Oscar buzz and snagging the opening film slot at the Toronto Film Festival upped The Judge's aire of importance.  Admittedly, if you walk into the flick with that mindset, disappointment may set in.  However, if you erase all that talk from your mind, The Judge is a decent paint-by-numbers tale about a family coming together at a difficult moment that surprisingly holds one's interest for (surprisingly brisk) nearly two-and-a-half hours.

When his mother passes away, hotshot Chicago defense attorney Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) returns home to a podunk small town in Indiana to attend her funeral.  Estranged from his family having not visited home in years, Hank's return is greeted with disdain from his father Joseph (Robert Duvall) -- the two obviously having had issues in the past that pushed them apart.  After the funeral, Joseph -- the small town's respected judge -- goes out for a drive to clear his mind and the next morning Hank and his two brothers Glen and Dale (Vincent D'Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) discover that their father's car has been in some kind of accident -- a thought that is confirmed as the cops pull up to take Joseph in for questioning for the death of a cyclist who died in a hit and run the night before.  Later charged with murder, Joseph and Hank must attempt to work together to acquit Joseph of the crime, but their complicated past doesn't make things easy.

You know where The Judge is heading right off the bat and you know how it's going to get there.  Script- and dialog-wise, the screenwriters have crafted something that is so incredibly by-the-book, I feel like I could've written it.  Directorially-speaking, David Dobkin didn't do a single thing worth mentioning.  So, how in the world did I find myself maintaining interest in this work?

It all comes down to the very talented ensemble, all of whom elevate the lackluster elements above into something that is able to hold interest.  Admittedly, Robert Downey, Jr., isn't doing anything we haven't seen him do before -- make smart-ass Tony Stark a lawyer and you've essentially got Hank Palmer.  Somehow, though, Downey's charm and humor captivate.  (And there's actually quite a bit of gentle humor which is surprising and welcoming.)  Robert Duvall isn't necessarily reinventing the wheel either, but his character's humility and heart play a nice counterpoint to his son's brashness.  We all know where the story's going to end up, but with Downey, Jr., and Duvall playing off one another, it becomes worth watching.  Add in some nice performances from Vincent D'Onofrio, Billy Bob Thornton (as the prosecutor trying Joseph's case), and Vera Farmiga (as Hank's high school girlfriend) and you've got a cast worth watching.

I look back on The Judge and find many faults with it -- there are so many subplots that weigh down the script that it's almost laughable -- but I also remember it fondly.  There's a simplicity to the overarching story that we often don't see in films today and while some may find it clichéd or treacly, I found it a little bit ballsy in the midst of our crazed society.  It's the kind of movie Jimmy Stewart would've been starring in were Jimmy Stewart alive today -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

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