Wednesday, October 15, 2014

[Review] The Judge

Two really good R.D.s star in this small town, family courtroom melodrama. The Judge reminds me quite a bit of this year's Wish I Was Here. Not only does it share a lot of the same themes (and it also plays the same Bon Iver song twice, and that's only kind of beside the point), but its flaws also frustrate within the more solid material. Thankfully though, its strong spots are powerful enough to create a rewarding experience, and a couple of top-notch performances from Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall give everything a lift and make the weak spots a little more forgivable.

Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.) is a hotshot A-hole defense attorney, navigating the skyscrapers of Chicago. He's also in the midst of a divorce, but he seems to be a pretty good father to his daughter (when he has the time). Hank's life spirals when he receives a call about his mother's passing. This forces him to return to Carlinville, Indiana (the hometown he despises) for the first time in about 20 years. He also has to face his father, Joseph Palmer, a longtime judge, and the two are definitely on separate pages. It also turns out that Judge Palmer is a suspect in a hit-and-run murder case, and just as Hank is ready to get the hell out of town, he's called back to represent his father in court.

The film has an awkward start. It stumbles over tones, which gives the narrative a disjointed feeling--bouncing in and out of some underwhelming humor, schmaltz that gets too close to cheesy, and some nostalgic home movies that don't quite mesh yet. There also are some clich├ęs of the less passable variety, and there's a cringe-worthy subplot that certainly would've been better off being wiped away completely. Questions also arise about how legitimate the legal proceedings are, but that's an aspect where you just have to suspense some disbelief.

Eventually (and luckily), the film finds its footing in the second half, as it becomes way more focused. The complicated conflicts ramp up, and the familial dynamics and dysfunctions are tapped into more genuinely and interestingly. The emotion begins to ring truer, and it actually hits pretty hard. The film provokes a number of pocket crinkling moments, where you can hear various members of the audience digging around for tissues. A handful of the heavy scenes between Downey Jr. and Duvall are fantastic as the two give it their absolute best. And when Billy Bob Thornton enters the picture as the prosecutor, there are some remarkably sharp head-to-head confrontations.

The Judge is a total hit-and-miss effort, and the glaringly problematic elements hold it back from excelling, but when you have two powerhouses like Downey Jr. and Duvall leading the way, this film can't just be dismissed.


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