There are lots of reasons actors choose to work in a film. It could be the script. It could be the director. It could be the actors they’ll be working with. It could be the paycheck. It could be the opportunity to win an Academy Award. One or more of those could be true when it comes to why Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. chose to play father and son in director David Dobkin’s The Judge. Let’s break down which is the most likely:
The Script – Well, it’s written by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque. Schenk had a hand in writing Gran Torino (or How Beer Taught an Old Man to Not Be Quite So Racist as I like to call it). Dubuque doesn’t have a finished writing credit other than The Judge on his IMDb page. So … yeah … the writers’ pedigrees couldn’t have swayed the Roberts.
The Director – David Dobkin is best known for Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus, and Shanghai Knights (not its predecessor Shanghai Noon however, for whatever that’s worth). So … yeah … not the director.
The Actors – This one is actually plausible. Duvall is a legend so I would think the majority of actors would find being in a film with him to be a career goal. Downey’s had a long history of quality roles and his Q rating is off the charts, so trying to grab onto his coattails right now is understandable. Once you add in a supporting cast that includes Vincent D’Onofrio, Vera Farmiga, and Billy Bob Thornton, and you have the makings of a very credible ensemble. So … maybe …
The Paycheck – Always a possibility the money is the driving force. I mean, come on, Michael Caine did Jaws IV: The Revenge so he could buy a boat! And while A-list actors can make a killing each time out, being a good actor doesn’t mean being good at managing your money. Nor does it mean you could be immune to dry spells that make keeping up appearances harder and harder. Like any job, and because we all have bills to pay, money can often be a powerful motivator.
An Academy Award – Duvall already has his (though 1983’s Tender Mercies is a bit removed from present day and his last nomination was for 1998’s A Civil Action). Thornton has one too (for writing Sling Blade). Farmiga’s been nominated (Up in the Air) and so has Downey (twice: Chaplin and Tropic Thunder). It’s here that things really become clearer. While Downey likely has the pick of the litter right now considering he makes something like 84 Gazillion dollars every time he puts on the Iron Man suit, not having the all-gold metal man on his mantle seems the likeliest culprit.
And really, when you break down The Judge, it’s got Oscar Bait written all over it. There’s the sappy, cloying storyline of a Indiana boy who fled for the big city but remains desperate for his father’s love, the father’s desperate attempts to make things good amongst his sons having just lost his wife and facing his own mortality, the hackneyed small-town clichés, the trumped up back stories of ancillary characters, the Grisham-like courtroom drama, and even a Nicholas Sparks-like ridiculous romantic subplot. All of that simply screams “Look at Me”, “Pick Me”, “Remember Me When You Vote For Whatever Award You Have Influence On”.
But as a much better courtroom drama that has so many of these same elements going for it once said: “I strenuously object”.
The Judge is a jumbled mess of incomplete and useless story arcs, with over-the-top and saccharine dialogue, albeit all shot beautifully by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (who’s got as many Oscars on his mantle as all the actors mentioned above combined). Really, when I stop to think about the incomplete and nonsensical way in which the characters’ through lines attempt to meet, the movie actually can best be described as a melodramatic cable TV show whose entire season was edited into a 2 hour, 21 minute “highlight” reel.
The only thing that keeps The Judge from being pure bottom of the barrel pandering is the strength of its actors. They probably should win an award of some kind for keeping the project from attaining the stench it could have in less capable hands. And by less capable, my finger pointing lands squarely on the screenwriters and director. A number of additional passes were needed to tighten up the screenplay and either fully connect all the disparate storylines, or focus on the ones that really matter.
As for Dobkin’s folly (a better movie title for this affair in my opinion), the movie is littered with weird insertions of comic relief that ruin the tone, or what may have been an attempt at tone. This is especially and almost troubling-so in the case of the youngest brother of Downey and D’Onofrio’s characters (played by Jeremy Strong). The character is mentally challenged with a heart of gold … for no clear reason from a plot perspective … and from an almost offensive standpoint in how his condition is used to break the tension in a number of scenes.
You may be thinking that this is just another cynical rip-job that a jaded film critic must love to write. Sure, there’s more than a little satisfaction in shining a light on the faults of a bad film. And it’s way more fun that writing a tepid review for mediocre fare. However, I’d rather a movie with this much potential deliver the goods and let me walk away with nothing but praise for a collection of actors I’d gladly watch again in another capacity. That’s just not possible here.
The Judge falls flat, is all too transparent in its reason for being, and simply isn’t worth your time or money. Barring the Hollywood Foreign Press simply wanting to rub elbows with an Avenger, and making yet another horrendous attempt at showing they have cinematic taste, hopefully after a week or two of release, this one will just fade into obscurity. The actors deserve better and so do we.
The Judge is rated R for language including some sexual references.