Wednesday, 31 December 2014
Review: The Judge (UK Cert 15)
Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr) is a successful attorney in Chicago, who is called back to his hometown in Indiana on the death of his mother. Hank's relationship with his family is a little strained, particularly with his father Joseph (Robert Duvall), who is also the town's judge. As Hank is ready to return to Chicago, he is forced to remain when Joseph is suspected of murder. Pretty soon, some longheld family secrets and resentments come tumbling out as son tries to defend father.
The Judge is equal parts family drama and legal thriller. What could have been a simple by-the-book potboiler is enhanced by some superb performances and a satisfying twist in the courtroom drama, even if the family drama is predictable at times.
Robert Downey Jr gives a great performance in the lead role. Hank is snarky, arrogant, dismissive, brilliant at his job but bad at personal relationships... for anyone thinking that it's money for old rope and you're just getting Downey Jr as Tony Stark pre: the cave, you're right and you're wrong. You can't help but be reminded of Stark in places, because of Downey Jr's mannerisms and way of speaking, but there's more to it than that. Downey Jr is an actor that can elevate shonky material into something more (and he's given quite a bit to elevate here) and, even when the script is at its weakest, he saves it from descending into melodrama.
However, for me, the film belongs to Robert Duvall (and not just because he's the titular character). Duvall puts in a strong and dignified performance as Joseph, impressing me with his wisdom in court and moving me as his personal story continues. He's been getting the lion's share of awards recognition and for good reason. Like Downey Jr, even when the script becomes soapy, Duvall still retains that dignity and gravitas.
Other good performances come from Vincent D'Onofrio as Hank's brother and Joseph's son Glen, a former baseball star whose career was wrecked by an accident, which causes tension within the family. Jeremy Strong plays Dale, the youngest of the three Palmer boys, a sweetly naive mentally handicapped young man with a great subtlety and pathos. Billy Bob Thornton is also good as prosecuting attorney Dwight Dickham who goes against Hank in Joseph's trial.
David Dobkin- better known for directing comedies such as Wedding Crashers, The Change-Up, and Fred Claus- is in the director's chair and makes a pretty decent fist of directing a drama. The script, by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque (from a story by Schenk and Dobkin), is where things start to fall down. There's quite a bit of superfluous material- Hank's marital problems and a visit from his daughter (Emma Tremblay) don't add a great deal; neither does the reunion between Hank and high-school sweetheart Sam (Vera Farmiga) and the mystery of the paternity of Sam's daughter Carla (Leighton Meester)- and excising this would have reduced the wearying 141 minutes down to a more manageable and less bum-numbing length.
It's not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination. Virtually all of the female characters are paper-thin and poorly written, whilst the family drama is uneven and lurches into melodrama. However, the legal thriller side of the film is excellent and the performances by Downey Jr and Duvall are superb. Worth a watch but only just.
Rating: 3 out of 5