Fathers and sons. It’s a complex relationship dynamic and resonant struggle dating back to Old Testament times, when it was prophesized that the sins of the father will be visited on their sons. Never has this battle been made so clichéd and cloying than in director David Dobkin’s THE JUDGE. When “Mock Trial With Judge Reinhold” holds more validity (and intelligence) than the one featured in this film, audiences know they’re in trouble.
Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is a hot shot Chicago attorney with a Ferrari in the driveway, a house in Highland Park and a wife with an ass that won’t quit – or whatever he says to indicate the success we already assumed during his infuriatingly verbose exposition dump with a rival lawyer in the restroom. But that last one is a lie – her ass is quitting him, as he’s facing a divorce and a contentious custody battle over their young precocious manipulative script device daughter, Lauren (Emma Tremblay). Estranged from his family roots in small town suburbia, he’s summoned to return to picturesque Carlinville, Indiana to attend his mother’s funeral. Hank reconnects with older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), autistic younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong) and ex-flame Sam (Vera Farmiga), who inexplicably still carries a torch for him. But his father, the honorable grizzled Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), gets into hot water when he’s accused of a murder he may or may not have committed. Now, after years of defending himself to his father, he’s going to have to defend his father. If that sounds hokey, it’s because it is.
THE JUDGE should be taught in film schools – not because it’s any good, but because it does everything, and I mean everything, wrong. The off-putting horribleness should be dissected so that this may never happen again. One of the major hurdles this film never surmounts is that our hero Hank is unlikable almost the entire time – in fact, our opinion of him worsens as the film trudges on. Just because he watches a few home movies in the basement (another manipulative script device we see coming) while Bon Iver’s “Holocene” plays doesn’t change our dislike of him – and it’s ridiculously insulting to think that trick would work. He shows a little bit of growth, but it’s just not enough to root for him. Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque’s script is so chock full of exposition and characters telling each other things we already know (and have seen), it should be called EXPOSITION: THE MOVIE. Their script never achieves a seamless blend of comedy and drama – and doesn’t excel at them independently either. Thinly veiled metaphors, like Hank and his father’s heated argument in the middle of a hurricane (they’re caught in an emotional hurricane too! Get it?!), sink like lead. Jokes about incest are utterly repulsive and would’ve found better homes in Dobkin’s previous raunchcoms, THE CHANGE UP and WEDDING CRASHERS. The humor never provides the balance this film desperately craves. Plus, the resolution of that storyline is still seedy and terrible.
When it’s not busy sullying its characters, or screenwriting in general, the remainder of THE JUDGE’s turgid 141 minutes are devoted to poorly knocking off a John Grisham courtroom drama. Our introduction to Hank’s nemesis, prosecuting attorney Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), is handled in such cartoony fashion that it required its own sound effect (the sound of unsheathing a sword plays over him whipping out a collapsible metal cup). Courtroom scenes are artificially backlit, contributing to the picture’s phony bravado.
With such heavy weight placed on themes of resentment, redemption and forgiveness, it’s amazing that the filmmakers never expand on them to strike any genuine emotional chord with viewers. Not only does THE JUDGE ask the wrong questions, but it never even provides the answers. I object – and so should you.
1 out of 5
THE JUDGE opens on October 10 and is rated R.