Saturday, January 24, 2015

Catching Up: "The Judge"

 3.5 / 5 

The Judge takes two fine actors, casts them in a compelling courtroom drama with familial underpinnings, and develops a mesmerizing story about the way we think we know all there is to know about our fathers, our sons, our selves -- only to find we've never really looked.

Then, it waters down all of that good stuff with cutesy scenes of Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) trying to adjust to an extended stay in his podunk hometown.

Now, this is a major studio film, so his podunk hometown isn't filled with depressing Walmarts and Best Buys and gas stations and Mimis Cafes; this little idyllic slice of heaven in Indiana is the kind of place where slightly overweight white kids pile into the flatbed of a battered old truck to go fishing and wave at all the neighbors who drive by.  Other cherubic white kids ride their bikes down the middle of the street, and bunting and garden lights are always artfully hanging from the storefront awnings.  These are the towns that production designers need to find because ready-made studio backlots don't exist anymore -- and neither do towns like this, except in movies.

Everyone knows everyone, everyone offers cheery hellos, everyone's friendly and white and wealthy.  It's nothing at all like Chicago, where Hank normally practices law.  There, he's become a scheming, fast-talking defense attorney who takes guilty clients with deep pockets.  Here, he's a fish out of water, the slick-willy small-town-boy-made-good who left home back in the late '80s and never looked back.  Not even to come visit his family.

He returns now because his mother has died, leaving his father, the respected Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) to watch after Hank's older brother Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) and their mentally challenged younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong).  Hank makes a point of looking up his old flame, Samantha (Vera Farmiga), who owns the local bar and has a 20-something daughter (Leighton Meester) who flirts a lot with Downey.

Eventually -- very eventually -- a story comes into focus.  It takes a long time to get there. You could argue that the story, which is in part a mystery and in part a standard legal thriller, needs to be set up properly, and that might be true except that the "character study" parts of The Judge -- about Downey's impending divorce, his relationship with his daughter, and his dread of being back in his podunk hometown -- have very little to do with the story and add a good half-hour to its bloated 2½-hour running time.

It's John Grisham meets On Golden Pond, and while the central (and most interesting) relationship between the old judge and his cocky lawyer son is integral to the plot, the rest is filler, and makes The Judge feel too cutesy and sweet -- a feeling not helped by the sun-dappled, overly sweeping camerawork -- before it gets going.

But when it does get going, it's a gripping thriller, one that may not exactly be original, but feels fresh with the masterful performances by Duvall (a deserved Oscar nominee), Downey and Billy Bob Thornton as the prosecuting attorney from way out in Gary, Indiana.

Vera Farmiga is appealing but mostly wasted in the love-interest plot that really doesn't lead anywhere, and as the scenes with the two of them dragged on and on, I grew resentful; I wanted to get back to the two better stories the movie was telling, the one about how Judge Palmer might have murdered a man he once imprisoned and how Palmer's estranged son was committed to ensuring the old man wouldn't go to jail; and the one about the Palmer men, senior and junior.  There is a lot of compelling interpersonal drama in The Judge, it just would better have been left to the Palmer men instead of its tentative steps into romance.

Still, fans of courtroom thrillers will find The Judge one of the better examples of the genre in recent years, and it's nice to see the old tropes move back off of the TV screen and into the movies.  The Judge is a handsome, finely made movie that would have been better focusing on The Judge, not the town.  We've seen this town before, Atticus Finch lived in a place just like it, and as one character says, "Everyone wants Atticus Finch until there's a hooker in the bathtub."  I'm not sure movie audiences need Atticus Finch anymore, just great stories.  The Judge gets it half right, and maybe even a little bit more.

Viewed Jan. 24, 2015 -- DVD

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