Directed by: David Dobkin
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D'onofrio, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, Jeremy Strong, Billy Bob Thornton, Sarah Lancaster, Grace Zabriskie
Back in the 90s, the courtroom thriller saw a revival, thanks mainly in part to the popularity of the novels of John Grisham. Adaptations of Grisham's work flooded the market for a few years, but despite directorial heavyweights like Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman lending their talents, none of these films rose above mediocrity, and lent themselves all too comfortably to parody (Think TV sitcom 30 Rock's 'The Rural Juror'). Two decades on, The Judge feels almost like a postmodern take on the genre. It hits every cliched note, but asks us to forgive it for doing so by winking at the audience. But acknowledging that you're giving us nothing we haven't seen before doesn't hide the fact that you're giving us nothing we haven't seen before.
The film opens with one of the classic cliches of the courtroom thriller, as Downey Jnr's hotshot New York lawyer, Hank Palmer, is confronted by a disgruntled prosecutor in the men's room during a case recess. "This is a terrible cliche," Tony Stark, er, sorry, Hank remarks. "Indeed it is," we answer, presuming the movie has some new tricks up its sleeve if its willing to readily acknowledge such an offence. But then we immediately get another cliche, that of the embittered city man forced to return to the small town he severed ties with and vowed never to return to, when Hank heads to rural Indiana to attend his mother's funeral. The reason Hank holds such loathing for his hometown is his estranged relationship with his father, Joe (Duvall), the town's judge. (Would a one horse town like this have its own courthouse?) Hank and Joe rekindle their mutual hatred, and Hank is about to board a plane back to NY when he learns his father has been arrested on a murder charge. You can guess the rest for yourselves, but it's no spoiler to reveal Hank becomes his old man's lawyer.
A Willie Nelson cover of Coldplay's 'The Scientist' accompanies the film's end credits, and serves as a metaphor for the film itself. Nelson embues the song with a dignity it doesn't deserve, and the stellar cast assembled here does just the same for the movie.
The Judge commits many crimes; it's overly manipulative (we're asked to empathise with Duvall's suspected murderer simply because he's old and fragile), it's borderline offensive (Hank's mentally challenged brother serves as little more than a device to deliver exposition, while Midwesterners are roundly portrayed as idiots), and there are bizarre comedic subplots (Hank makes out with a bargirl, only to wrestle with the idea that she may be the daughter he never knew he had). But Duvall, Downey Jnr, D'onofrio (as Hank's older brother) and Emma Tremblay (Hank's young daughter) deliver performances that transcend the cliched characters written on the page. Duvall is particularly impressive, and any Oscar talk that might surround this film must surely be centred on his terrific turn. Equally, Janusz Kaminski's elegant cinematography belongs in a better movie than this.
There's a market for this sort of thing, one that's probably gone hungry in the years since the genre's Grisham heyday. Precisely by striking all the familiar notes (do all of these movies have to be set in rural America?), it will likely find a satisfied core audience. If you're not a devotee of Grisham and his ilk, however, there's little beyond some great performances to keep you satisfied.
If you do check it out, have a go at figuring out the movie's timeframe. I wasn't paying strict attention to this element, but it seemed to me like the whole movie, court case and all, took place over no more than a couple of weeks.
By Eric Hillis