Powerful star turns by Duvall and Downey Jr. can’t quite acquit “The Judge”
Clichés exist for a reason. They are essentially repetitions of themes, of esthetically pleasing ideas and phrases that were at one time wise and powerful observations of the human condition. No matter how many times we see a popular movie trope, there is someone, somewhere who is experiencing it for the first time.
Usually these re-used and rehashed ideas are popular among the young and inexperienced—introductory writing courses are fraught with old adages and common nuggets of truth, not because the writers are lazy, but because they are learning.
Many times, movies will return to clichés again and again, because it’s easy and people continue to respond to them. This doesn’t necessarily doom a movie, but it does tend to limit it in a way that is hard to overcome. “The Judge” is a film filled with cliché but it’s endearing enough at times that the clichés can be ignored. If it didn’t rely so heavily on familiar themes, the talent of the cast might have overcome most of the missteps in the script. As it is, “The Judge” is still a film that will appeal to a certain crowd. I have no doubt my mother will love it. But the excellent performances in the film aren’t enough to rise above the “movie of the week” melodrama that occupies its core.
Robert Downey Jr. plays a hotshot defense lawyer in Chicago, the type that doesn’t worry about the guilt of his client, only the depth of his pockets. He is from Small Town, Indiana, and during the first of many convenient coincidences learns about the passing of his mother before he begins a big trial. This is of course played up as an excuse for a continuance and serves as a way to further characterize Hank Palmer as a slippery personality. Palmer returns home after exchanging a few terse words with his soon-to-be-ex-wife to attend the funeral and revisit his past.
Small Town, Indiana looks exactly as it should, with well-lit American flags flying high in the breeze, precocious children on bicycles, and anachronistic young boys loading fishing equipment into the backs of antique pickup trucks. Palmer buries his mother, fights with his father and leaves as quickly as he arrives. But in convenient coincidence number two he is caught on the plane by his brother and asked to come home. His father has been brought in for questioning regarding the hit-and-run death of a pedestrian. It’s worth mentioning that Palmer’s father, played by an ever-more-crotchety Robert Duvall, is a well-respected judge in Small Town and the man he hit just happened to be a murderer that escaped justice some years earlier. Thus begins the crux of the story: Hank Palmer must defend a man he despises and loves, discovering himself in the process.
Almost everything in this film is telegraphed. If you’ve seen a movie before, you know what’s going to happen. Characters in “The Judge” abandon cars on empty roads and walk in opposite directions to indicate their distance from each other. They have histrionic shouting matches during thunderstorms to heighten the tension and highlight the power of the opposing personalities. They have touching and deep revelations on the witness stand, because it is the only place where they are bound by law to tell the truth. Certain audiences will find this comforting rather than tedious and, as I mentioned, the actors are strong enough to almost carry the movie despite these glaring, boilerplate choices. However, the film completely wastes the talent of Vera Farminga by assigning her the role of the one-note ex-girlfriend whose sole purpose is to provide the protagonist with a chance at redemption.
Robert Duvall is 83 and continues to be one of the best actors in Hollywood. One of my issues with “The Judge” is that it has the potential to use him well and falls short. I fear that he may not have many more films in him and I’d hate for him to end his career on a film like this one. “The Judge” is acceptable and safe, but an actor like Duvall (and Robert Downey Jr. and Vera Farminga and Vincent D’Onofrio for that matter) needs a more challenging and powerful script to inject their talents into. Let’s hope that future projects will show a wider range by providing a better story.