This is what happens when a small intimate indie movie script is written for one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Robert Downey Jr is a fine actor, and does indeed demonstrates this in The Judge. He is co-incidentally one of the Executive Producers of the film; his company Team Downey is behind the production.However, you may be forgiven for thinking that The Judge is a high stakes legal thriller, but despite the weighty cast and elegant courtroom cinematography full of light streaming into a seemingly darkened room through inexplicable smoke, nothing could actually be further from the truth.
At its simplest it is the tale of Hank Palmer, and his return to his small town home for the funeral of his mother. Hank is an arrogant lawyer with dubious moral business ethics who is always chasing the next rich and usually guilty client to represent. No surprise to learn this is Robert Downey Jr’s role in the film – Hank Palmer is the kind of part he can play in his sleep. Even so he lends the character a depth that other actors would miss. Similarly the titular Judge, his father Joseph Palmer, is played by an excellently dismissive Robert Duvall. It’s as though casting had been done by a Hollywood Exec in a dream. And yes, although neither part appears to be much of a stretch, they both do sterling work giving both roles life. In fact the performances are uniformly excellent. Every moment of emotion is believable and finely wrought, and the performances even achieve the unlikely feat of making you forget quite what big stars are presenting them. Vera Farmiga as Hank’s old flame Samantha is wonderfully stoic and Vincent D’Onofrio is similar poised and contained as Hank’s brother Glen. There is a fabulous air of sadness and longing for things lost which runs through the film.
The central conceit of the movie is that Hank ends up representing his father, known by everyone as “Judge,” against a murder charge in the same court he has presided over for many years. But it isn’t a thriller. It just isn’t. Chiefly for the reason that it’s not very thrilling. There are no nefarious forces at work, no sudden twists, nothing. It may be shot like a Grisham adaptation but the legal story is incredibly prosaic.
The actual story is quite a sweet, nicely affecting and emotional story of someone going home and becoming reconciled with his family. It is the beautifully played heart of the film which raises it over just cliché. That heart is worth seeing.The fact that ultimately it might seem a little bit underwhelming is possibly the fault of the marketing, but definitely the way the film has been directed. Huge vistas for example, cameras sweeping out of the sky into car windows in pricey single shots for no reason. The afore-mentioned light streaming through weirdly smoky courtroom windows. Money thrown at the screen. It looks expensive.
The music is bloody awful though. It’s like a patchwork quilt of other legal and soapy dramas has been compiled to use indiscriminately. Every possible emotional cue is wrung out of the soundtrack, but ham-fistedly and loudly drawing attention to itself instead of softly emphasising the moment. It is the very definition of a director who doesn’t trust his audience. It’s a shame.
With a lower budget this not-at-all-bad film could have been great. It’s just shame that with a lower budget it’s unlikely it would ever have got made at all.
Previously posted on cinetalk.co.uk