I think if you told me a couple of years ago that Robert Downey Jr. would be one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, I probably would not have believed you. Don’t get me wrong while I am a fan of his work but after his battles with drug addiction during the 90s and early 00s, I honesty didn’t see him being an A-lister again like he was earlier in his career. But after the major surprise success of IRON MAN, Downey’s career sky rocketed once more and he is now the most successful actor working today. While has been busy with major big budget film franchises like the IRON MAN, AVENGERS and SHERLOCK HOLMES films, but he is still making some smaller films in between them. One of which is the comedy/drama THE JUDGE, which has been getting an early Oscar buzz.
The film tells the story of Henry ‘Hank’ Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.), a hugely successful big city defence attorney who one day receives a call that his mother has passed away. Hank returns home to small town of Carlinville, Indiana to attend his mother’s funeral and there he catches up with his estranged family including his father Joseph ‘Joe’ Palmer, who works as a Judge at the local courthouse. Both Hank & Joe haven’t talked to each other in many years and after a couple of arguments, Hank decides to go back to the city and never return. However just as he is about to leave, Hank discovers from the town Sheriff that his father is a suspect in the hit-and-run murder of a criminal that sent to prison years prior. After thinking about it, Hank reluctantly decides to become his Dad’s lawyer. As they work on the case, both men begin to reconnect with each other once again.
I must admit that the first time that I saw the trailer for THE JUDGE, I thought that it didn’t look good at all. In fact the trailer made it feel like one of those fake parody ‘Oscar movie’ trailers that Downey Jr. appeared in from TROPIC THUNDER. So I was hoping that it was just a case of THE JUDGE having a badly put together trailer and that it didn’t reflect what the actual film itself would be like. So now having seen the film, I’m really sad to report that it is EXACTLY as it’s trailer marketed as. Not only was this film absolutely terrible, it is one of the worst films that I’ve seen so far in 2014. There was potential there for it to be a good film, but it’s so poorly handled in every way that it ends up being a tonally confused mess. One of the reasons why THE JUDGE didn’t work for me, was that it didn’t know what type of film it actually wanted to be: a comedy or a drama. It tries to be both, but the tone was just so uneven and all over the place that it ends up feeling both awkward and jarring. I think the two main reasons why this film is such a tonal mess, is because of both the direction and script.
Director David Dobkin (who previously made the broad Hollywood comedies WEDDING CRASHERS, FRED CLAUS and THE CHANGE-UP), wasn’t right the person to make this film and his direction here was awful. You can tell from watching this film that he is having a very hard time trying to handle the film’s ever-changing tone but sadly, he wasn’t able to do it. Every dramatic moment was played so serious, unsubtle and over-the-top, you feel like you’re being beaten over the head with hammer over how completely heavy-handed and unbelievable it was (plus it tries so hard to tug at the heart-strings that its feels extremely manipulating). While on the other hand, the comedic aspects were came across as too broad and silly that they feel like they are out of completely different film. The screenplay by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque was poorly written. It tries to cram in so much plot that it makes the film feel bloated and overlong. Some of the subplots could have easily have been cut out, since they didn’t add anything to the story at all (a subplot involving Leighton Meester’s character was stupid and unneeded). Nothing about the story felt organic, everything single thing about it felt very contrived and forced. Plus while the supporting cast (Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dax Shepard, Jeremy Strong, Leighton Meester and Billy Bob Thornton) do try their best, sadly they didn’t really have much to work with due to their rather thin and clichéd characters.
Now you’re probably wondering, was there anything about the film that I actually liked? Well, there are few minor things. The major ones being Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. Even though he had bad script to work with, Downey Jr. still gives a top-notch performance and showcases once again how talented he is as an actor. While the character isn’t that much of a stretch for him (particularly in the first half, where his character of “Hank” is a charming arsehole), but he does get to show off his dramatic and emotional side. We haven’t seen that side of Downey Jr. in films for quite a while, so it was nice to see him take on a dramatic role again. Through his performance, Downey Jr. gets us engaged and invested in his character’s journey. Plus he has some good moments with his co-star Robert Duvall. Even though it’s not one of the best roles of his legendary career, Robert Duvall still gives a good performance as “Joe”. He was able overcome the shortcomings of the script to give us a reasonably interesting character onscreen. Plus Duvall isn’t afraid to tackle the real dramatic aspects of his role (the bathroom, while not easy to watch, is a good indicator of this). Also Thomas Newman’s score was solid and the cinematography by Janusz Kaminski was quite good.
Overall while THE JUDGE does have some small, and I mean small, good qualities, unfortunately they weren’t able to save it from being a truly terrible film. To me it felt like that it was manufactured by a studio so that it could be an Oscar contender, instead it completely fails in every way. While I’m sure they’ll be some of you out there who will enjoy the film and think I’m overreacting over how bad it was (which I wouldn’t blame), but this film was such a heavy-handed mess that just didn’t work for me on any level at all (it’s definitely a contender for my top 10 worst films of 2014 list). Downey Jr., Duvall and company deserve better than this piece of crap.
– Bede Jermyn