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The Judge

Originally published in the Durango Telegraph. 

I was surprised when I got to the theater this week to find that the Gaslight had very nearly sold out the Friday afternoon showing of “The Judge.” When I bought my ticket, the cashier told me it was “one of those movies.” I had to check my ticket stub; the Gaslight was also showing “Left Behind,” which, I’d have to agree, is one of those movies. But that’s not what I was there to see, and that’s not which theater had nearly sold out.

“The Judge” opens with pretty standard, generic red state/blue state tension. Robert Downey Jr. is a well-to-do Chicago lawyer who successfully defends guilty clients. He had abandoned his small town Indiana roots. Robert Duvall plays his father, a judge in that small town, who hasn’t spoken to his son for years. Though the film never gets political, it wouldn’t be hard to guess which one voted for Obama, and which one is still waiting for Obama to produce a legitimate birth certificate.

Downey, Jr. comes home for his mother’s funeral, and his old man will barely shake his hand. He’s not going to stay any longer than he has to, but literally while he’s on the plane, his brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) calls him back, to defend his father, who is the primary suspect in a murder. So he goes back.

But this isn’t “Doc Hollywood;” this isn’t yet another film about the redemption of the city boy’s soul through simple, old-fashioned small town people and their rock solid morality and decency.  Part courtroom drama and part family tear-jerker, “The Judge” is more concerned with its people than its plot. Director David Dobkin skillfully intersperses big, scenery chewing scenes with smaller, more telling (and more moving) moments, such as when, while complaining about what an old bastard his father is, Downey Jr. immediately sits up straight and takes his feet off the furniture when Duvall enters the room.

There is, however, just way too much going on here. The film is bloated at two and a half hours, and there are any number of subplots that could be removed to simplify the story and even out the tone. We don’t really need to know about Downey’s daughter, or his crumbling marriage, and while Vera Farmiga is nice as a high school flame interested in rekindling things, the paternity plot — and the ridiculous, nonsensical left turn it takes at the end — aren’t necessary.

The real joy here is watching a stable of talented actors and actresses go to work. Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall are on opposite ends of some kind of acting spectrum — the first all acerbic wit and splatter of words, the second slow, often silent, commanding the screen with his stillness — and it’s great to see them play off each other.  I haven’t seen Duvall this invested in a role since “The Apostle,” and holy cow, that was almost twenty years ago.  As for Robert Downey, Jr. – he’s gotten so wrapped up in big budget, franchise roles (Iron Man, Sherlock Holmes) where he plays a larger-than-life superhuman lately that I’d forgotten what a good actor he can be when he wants to.

There’s great work done by the supporting cast, too. Vera Farmiga plays the high school sweetheart with a measured confidence and just a tinge of world-weariness that sets Downey Jr.’s edgy city act in a profound new light; maybe it wasn’t necessary to escape Indiana in order to be happy.  And Vince D’Onofrio does solid work as Downey Jr.’s. older brother, a washed-up baseball star who now owns a tire store.  Farmiga and D’Onofrio are both underrated actors I wish we saw more of in the movies.

“The Judge” probably features too many big, emotional scenes, and as it goes on, it gets away from itself, until the final scenes in a courtroom seem imported from a much lesser film. For one thing, the lawyers and witnesses get away with things – big dramatic moments – that would never be allowed in a courtroom. Films got away with this kind of thing in the days of “Perry Mason,” but in these days of “The Good Wife” and twenty seasons of “Law & Order,” audiences know better.  More than once, I nearly jumped from my seat and cried “Objection! Badgering the witness!” myself.

What’s interesting to me, though, is the way the film undermines and plays against that old “Doc Hollywood” formula. The city son’s latent goodness is revealed when he needs to defend and care for his father; that was to be expected. But it becomes clear that the country father hasn’t been playing by the rules either; he has hidden a serious illness from the court, knowing that if it were ever found out, all the trials he presided over would be declared mistrials. Frankly, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to side with him or against him in this — should he be allowed to keep his secret and maintain his legacy? Isn’t his legacy tainted by this secret, and shouldn’t those cased be re-tried, if the judge presiding over them was suffering from dementia and memory loss? The city son may be using the legal system to thwart and miscarry justice for his own benefit in the big city, but the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree – the country father is doing the same thing, in a slightly different way.

On the way out of the theater, I noticed that the large majority of my fellow moviegoers were over 50.  Maybe that’s what makes it “one of those movies.” It’s true, this one is geared to the AARP crowd; it’s being described by other reviewers and conventional, earnest, and sincere. But I don’t consider any of those words necessarily negative (I’d rather see an earnest movie than a cute one.) I hope younger audiences will give it a chance.  It’s not slick and sexy, but it’s got charms of its own.


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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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