The Judge (2014)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
David Dobkin’s much anticipated film premiere at TIFF was greeted with a packed house. As I settled into my seated with a large popcorn, I was soon to learn that the The Judge would clock in 141 minutes. Normally I wouldn’t mind so much considering performances by Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. But as a family drama, I was skeptical of how Dobkin, director of past wonders such as Fred Claus and Shanghai-Knights, would keep my attention.
Duvall is highly believable as the hard-headed old man, and he’s played many characters like this before, but this one his strongest yet. His physical and emotional evolutions are palpably felt.
The Judge is the tale of cutthroat defense attorney Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) who reluctantly goes back to the small town he grew up in to attend the funeral of his recently deceased mother. His father is the old town judge, Joseph Palmer. He’s a stubborn curmudgeon and is estranged from Hank. The story is a mishmash of family and court drama. Judge Palmer hits and kills a man he helped convict, but he doesn’t remember anything about the accident. After a bit of a squabble between his father and his own pride, Hank takes on the case. Vincent D’Onofrio is introduced as his brother Glen, Jeremy Strong is his autistic-like younger brother Dale and Vera Farmiga rounds off the cast as Hank’s ex-girlfriend, Samantha.
Hank gets along ok with his other brothers, but resentment still exists between him and Glen due to a car accident which ended his promising career in baseball. Fights breakout between Hank and his father, and they’re heart -rendering moments. Downey Jr. plays out his charms from the get go, often using humor in response to explosive situations or a smug remark during the tense ones. Duvall is highly believable as the hard-headed old man, and he’s played many characters like this before, but this one his strongest yet. His physical and emotional evolutions are palpably felt. Both actors play off each other remarkably well leading to some great moments between the two, causing everyone else to be secondary in the film. D’Onofrio is fiery as Glen and offers much grounding when he appears, but he’s a bit glossed over. Strong’s Dale is played off innocently and it’s refreshing to see that they didn’t make him into the developmentally disordered magical character trope.
With all the anticipation with The Judge opening the festival it’s disappointing to note that this film, while having some great performances, isn’t as memorable as was expected.
The Judge is really a manly film about male problems with their fathers. We can check off the female characters into stereotypical film females too: the mother dies thus becomes non-existent, the young wife is unfaithful in response to her husband’s neglect of their marriage, the ex-girlfriend is frustrated at Hank’s non-commitment, but he is still a great father to his adorable little. There might be some deepness there, but not much is fleshed out of the female characters, which is a pity considering Vera Farmiga is an extremely entertaining actress to watch. The only one that comes out here is Grace Zabriskie as the convict’s mother. She’s usually plays a creepy or a dubiously layered character. Here she leaves us guessing a bit, but somehow always manages to make an indelible mark with her underused appearances. She never fails to impress.
With all the anticipation with The Judge opening the festival it’s disappointing to note that this film, while having some great performances, isn’t as memorable as was expected. The changing moments burst out of the plot pinnacles, wringing out tears in their wake, but you can expect the same in a television drama. The Judge is a smart premise, with a proficient cast, but comes with a sure-fire sentimental outcome.
The Judge is a smart premise, with a proficient cast, but comes with a sure-fire sentimental outcome.