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With: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D'Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Sara Jane Burns, Grace Zabriskie, Denis O'Hare
Written by: Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque, based on a story by Nick Schenk, David Dobkin
Directed by: David Dobkin
MPAA Rating: R for language including some sexual references
Running Time: 141
Date: 10/10/2014

The Judge (2014)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Bench Warming

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Judge is about as lightweight as a Hollywood drama can get; its plot is fairly vanilla, everything is predictable, and the music cues come in at just the right time to remind us that it's only a movie. But I like it very much, for two reasons. One is that it features extremely strong performances by its two leads, Robert Downey Jr., and Robert Duvall. These two guys are among the heavyweights of today, and it's a real pleasure to watch them work. The second reason is that director David Dobkin allows just a little extra space for the characters to stretch out, go a little deeper. Even while the lumpy pot awaits them around the next turn, they have a couple of minutes here and there to laugh, cry, scream, yell, hide things, reveal things, joke around, and fall in love.

The story has Downey as Hank, a big city lawyer, a cynical scumbag, really, who only defends guilty people and never loses ("innocent people can't afford me"). He gets a call that his mother has died, and he reluctantly makes the trip to his despised small hometown, Carlinville, Indiana, for the funeral. He leaves behind his hot, but unhappy wife, and his adorable, doting daughter because he intends to be back as fast as possible and doesn't want to subject anyone else to the banalities awaiting him.

He arrives and finds his two brothers. The youngest is the developmentally disabled Dale (Jeremy Strong), who films everything with an old film camera (Hank hugs Dale affectionately, murmuring, "I missed you"); this allows Dobkin to sprinkle the film with lots of old home movie footage, which is a terrible cliche in other films, but has an excuse here. Older brother Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) was once a promising baseball player. Glen's opening remarks to Hank are about whether he found parking.

Then there's the judge himself (Duvall), named Joseph but always referred to as "Judge." The Judge barely acknowledges Hank, and Hank is angry and hurt. As he prepares to leave, he discovers that the Judge was involved in some kind of accident that resulted in a death. The victim was a man the Judge incorrectly sentenced -- someone who was guilty and got a light sentence and subsequently murdered a woman. He has been newly released from jail, and it looks like revenge. It doesn't look good for the Judge. So Hank decides to stay and represent his father.

It sounds pretty typical, but watching the way Downey incorporates extreme need and hurt into his role is spectacular. He's a guy that has received a great deal of damage, and has his defenses way, way up. When the need outweighs the defenses, as in a scene in which Hank tells his father about his law school achievements, Downey can make you catch your heart in your throat. Duvall matches him as the prototypical old man who never learned to show his emotions.

The same praise goes for the rest of the cast, especially Farmiga, D'Onofrio, Strong, and Billy Bob Thornton, slick and soft-spoken as the opposing counsel (he has a folding metal cup that he racks open and closed at the beginning and ending of the trial). The only slight misstep is the casting of Dax Shepard as a local (part-time) lawyer whom the Judge would rather employ for his defense. Shepard is a charming, funny actor -- even if he comes a little too close to Owen Wilson's territory -- but he's too comedic and cartoonish for this movie. He stops to throw up before entering the courtroom each day.

Dobkin also comes from comedy. He directed the good films Shanghai Knights and Wedding Crashers as well as the bad films Fred Claus and The Change-Up. It's probably a bit much to ask him to jump fully into grim-faced drama, and to his credit, he uses humor sparingly to lighten up potentially deadly situations. In one yucky scene, the ill Judge tries to make it to the bathroom and winds up spilling various bodily fluids on the bathmat. Hank must get him in the shower and get him cleaned up. Then, Hank's daughter (visiting for a weekend) starts hammering on the door, wanting to know what's going on. Using that distraction as a bonding moment, the scene morphs from turning stomachs to inducing smiles.

There's also a brilliant scene in which Hank uses his quick wit to prevent a bar fight, which reminded me of a similar stand-up-and-cheer moment in Roxanne (1987). Yet, as I write this, The Judge has been saddled with increasingly negative reviews, and it looks as if it could lead to audience discouragement, as well as Oscar snubs. Downey in particular is one of our greatest living actors, and after a career of 30 years and some 70 movies, he's still not quite appreciated. He has only two Oscar nominations and is never discussed among the greats. If people actually watch The Judge, watch it less for the plot than for the moments and characters, they might see something truly memorable.

Warner Home Video has released a very, very good Blu-ray edition, with superb image and sound. Hopefully viewers will discover this unfairly-reviewed movie, especially now that Mr. Duvall has an Oscar nomination. Extras include a funny short in which Dax Shepard interviews his co-stars, plus 18 minutes of deleted scenes (with optional commentary track by director Dobkin), and a very cool 22-minute featurette in which some of the actors and filmmakers sit around on a couch and talk. Dobkin also provides a commentary track.

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