Right from the start, David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) lays his cards out on the table as if he’s got a winning hand. He’s excited. He’s dreaming of the big gold pot at the center of the table, the one with the little gold statue standing in the middle of the pile. The problem is, all he’s got is a joke.
Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) stands at a urinal in the courthouse, some fancy big city justice center, wearing the kind of smug expression we’ve come to expect from a Robert Downey Jr. character. Palmer is self-satisfied and arrogant because he can’t lose — ever — because he is being played by Robert Downey Jr., who, as part of his current career trajectory, is on the kind of winning streak that earns him tens of millions per role and a percentage of the grosses (which means even more money on the back end). Downey Jr. has a lot in common with the stereotypical lawyer-type, the fall guy for a billion and one jokes, like the one that Dobkin kicks off with here.
Palmer idly relieves himself until opposing counsel enters the restroom and calls him out, seeking to badger him about some philosophical/moral point, at which time Palmer casually turns, continuing to relieve himself on the lawyer. The laugh, intended to be on opposing counsel, leaves more than a small stain on Downey Jr. as well. It is crass and beneath him — and the character — but it is the type of humorous action that Downey Jr. has elevated during this streak of his to a level that approaches, if not high art, then at the very least somewhat beyond middlebrow. Downey Jr., with his quick wit and dry turn of phrase, classes up the mundane and the pedestrian. He’s like American royalty.
Speaking of American royalty, The Judge, this attempt by Dobkin to upgrade his used car lot of a filmography, has Robert Duvall riding shotgun alongside Downey Jr., and in Duvall we’ve got another performer who knows how to put a spit-shine on things. Unlike Downey Jr., though, Duvall rarely plays for the laugh at all. Which is not to say that the man lacks humor or can’t be funny. The difference is Duvall sets up the situation, tells us a story and lets us find the humor in it for ourselves. The laugh is earned, rather than canned.
Of course, there’s little to no good or bad humor in Joseph Palmer (Duvall), an aging judge in small-town Indiana who has just lost his wife, what he believes might be the last good thing in his life. But old Joseph soldiers on. Hank received a call while in court about his mother’s passing and makes his way home for the service.
Older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong) stand beside their father, accepting condolences from the community, and the tense face-to-face between Hank and Joseph tells us everything we need to know about the rest of the movie. These two will stand toe-to-toe in the ring, squaring off with much history behind each punchy exchange. Hank, the urban elite, will scoff at the homespun nature of small-town life, although he does have a moment when he secretly marvels at his father’s command in the courtroom. Joseph and the boys will remind Hank of what happens when you refuse to leave that old world, and it comes as no surprise when Joseph, having “accidentally” killed a convicted felon he passed judgment on, must turn to Hank for defense.
It is obvious why the selection committee for the Toronto International Film Festival tapped The Judge for their opening night slot. With the stellar cast and courtroom drama mixed with the complex family dynamic, the film put itself up as evidence for the kind of old-fashioned filmmaking that many would argue has been lacking recently. But The Judge fails to truly embrace the old school approach.
There was always an economy in the storytelling of films like To Kill a Mockingbird, which featured Duvall as Boo Radley, and a need for heroes with righteousness in their bones. Joseph Palmer comes from that generation and carries himself as a standard-bearer of those ideals. Hank, on the other hand, is the newer modern take, the more complex model with tarnished values and a smirk as his main instruments.
Not everything about the old days needs to disappear or get buried in some deep dark hole. And it requires filmmakers with the good judgment to know what matters most and when to employ those aspects. Downey Jr. and Duvall do what they can with what’s at their disposal, but it would have been nice if Dobkin had given them more to work with, rather than just more jokes to extend the runtime. (Opens wide Friday)
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