David Dobkin is perhaps best known for directing critically-appraised comedies. Wedding Crashers and Shanghai Knights are two prize examples of what this mainstream Hollywood director is capable of. Both these films succeed in blending stomach-aching humor with creative storytelling. They are constantly praised by the majority of folks who open up about their favorite comedies of the last ten or eleven years. As the years have gone by, Dobkin appears to have lost his standing with the international jury of critics. He directed both Fred Claus and The Change-Up, which were both proven guilty of…sucking. He also served as a producer on Jack the Giant Slayer and as the executive producer of R.I.P.D. While the former was met with mixed reception, R.I.P.D could have been renamed R.I.P for rest in peace after seeing how bad it did at the box office. It is widely considered the worst comic adaption in recent memory by both critics and audiences alike! The Judge courageously attempts to mesh the serious tone of a courtroom drama with elements of his trademark sense of humor. With a jury (critics/audiences) and a judge (the box office) patiently awaiting what he has to say, can Dobkin impress the world once again?
The Judge looks to immediately impress everyone who hears about it by featuring the very versatile and legendary Hollywood actor Robert Duvall as the father of the always charismatic and big-budget Hollywood player Robert Downey Jr. These are two men are ARGUABLY the best actors of SEPARATE generations. Dobkins takes things a step further by casting the smooth-talking Billy Bob Thornton as Downey’s quick-witted opposition in court and the beautiful as ever, Vera Farmiga, in the role of long lost ex-girlfriend. Talk about determination! This is a film that truly pulls out all the stops. The intriguing (on paper) main plot revolves around a father and son who are forced to interact, despite disliking one another. Judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall) is suspected of murder and his lawyer son, Hank Palmer (Downey), insists on being the one to defend him from jail-time. Imagine this as the turkey of the script! Screenwriters Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque have decided to load it with enough stuffing to feed three families. They have written up plenty of interesting sub-plots to keep folks entertained between court-room intermissions. Do all of them have interesting pay-offs? Hardly any of them do. However, they did begin with potential and could have served as much more than questionable distractions from the main story at hand.
With that said, I do feel that they are still necessary in making The Judge a worthwhile viewing. They provide some extra entertainment value by offering laughs and sheer silliness alongside the heavy helpings of melodrama. Despite the gold that could have been found in having two capable smack-talkers in Downey Jr and Thornton squaring off in court, the courtroom drama isn’t as strong on either suspense or excitement as it should be, considering the talent involved. A great amount of this film’s overly long runtime is spent building this case and the characters’ relationship. Therefore I was sort of expecting court-room drama more intense than what someone can witness in a random weekly episode of Law & Order….
Another unfortunate gavel drop on the guilty side of the fence is that The Judge finds itself begging for an emotional response every now and then, as opposed to allowing emotional scenes to flow naturally. It almost feels as if Dobkin and his team of filmmakers are trying to force a critically-approved Oscar-worthy film upon viewers. This film desperately wants to achieve what Dallas Buyer’s Club, Her and 12 Years a Slave did last year. Have you ever witnessed a boy or girl telling a person of interest that they love the same things when they clearly do not? Do you understand what a cheap pop in professional wrestling is? Are you aware of the publicity stunts that some celebrities pull to turn heads? Unfortunately, The Judge goes through the same sort of efforts in order to evoke an emotional response from viewers.
This is not to say that I did not find anything to enjoy about Dobkin’s first attempt at a drama. The acting is as exceptional as can be expected from the high-caliber assortment of stars that are present in this film. It is obvious that these seasoned veterans of the acting game are working hard to put on a good show. A significant bit of chemistry can be found within in each relationship, and this adds an additional flare to all the drama. The Judge also has its fair share of crowd-pleasing moments (including a select few that do not feel forced). The drama in the Palmer family is so wild that it is actually a comforting relief to catch them getting along here and there. While this may not be the Oscar superstar that Dobkin may have hoped for it, it still manages to be an entertaining drama with exquisite production values. The fact that I heard from Dobkin himself (he talked on stage at the screening) that the story is loosely based on issues that he went through in real life with a family member expresses that he is passionate about this film. Downey, Jr has pointed out in interviews as of late that he formed a strong connection with the script due to problems with his own father. This means that the material actually resonates with the cast and filmmakers. It is an honest attempt at telling a story with meaning as opposed to simply being a throwaway big-budget drama with an extraordinary cast.
The jury finds The Judge…not guilty of being awful…but guilty on the count of not being as excellent as it had the potential to be. Play the role of judge and check it out when it comes to theaters on October 10th, 2014.
Superpower Film Scale: 3/5
1: Villainous Waste
2: Careless Bystanderunnamed
3: Hero unaware of powers
4: On the verge of greatness
5: Heroic film
Standout acting heroes: Robert Duvall