by George Sax
There’s a very experienced Buffalo criminal lawyer who likes to say, in response to Hollywood courtroom dramas, “There’s state law, there’s federal law, and there’s Hollywood law.” (Of course, this guy doesn’t approve of Otto Preminger’s tautly effective Anatomy of a Murder, with Jimmy Stewart, but I come not to quibble, so let’s let that go.) This man would probably have a terminal conniption fit if he were to see Robert Downey Jr. in David Dobkin’s The Judge.
It opens with an evidentiary hearing in Chicago that only a screenwriter and a movie industry magnifico like Downey (last year’s highest paid actor) could love. Well, also a lot of moviegoers, to be honest about it. Downey is Henry Palmer, a legal shark who represents very well-heeled malefactors—“The innocent can’t afford me,” he tells an outraged, outmaneuvered prosecutor. Henry is a motor-mouthed, weisenheimer wit as well a devil in the courtroom.
But there’s a snag in his supremo existence. His mother dies in his Indiana hometown, so he reluctantly heads home for the funeral. It’s not that he didn’t love his mother, but feelings are strained between him and the rest of the family, particularly his hard-nosed father (Robert Duvall, as the titular jurist). Having done his duty, Henry is on his way back to the safety of Manhattan when his father is arrested, suspected of murder in the automotive death of a recently released prisoner he had sent to jail. If that early evidentiary proceeding was (intentionally) risable, the legal convolutions that ensue as son represents father are enough to annoy even Judge Judy.
The Judge tries to barrel through the overheated, dysfunctional family complications, as well as the courthouse collisions, and it must be admitted it has a certain crude power, but it wore me out before I was ready to try to process the final melodramatics. As you might expect in a dramatic offering from an auteur best known for Vince Vaughn vehicles like Fred Claus and The Wedding Crashers, it’s insistent hokum, grabbing your lapels to get your involvement and sympathy. And it deliberately undercuts its conflicts with humor and slick appeals to poignance.
Downey is smooth, and it’s impressive to watch him work out his role, changing gears and modulations, but it’s not really involving. Duvall proves he still has his acting chops, and he sometimes manages to evoke a dignity and sympathy that the movie doesn’t really deserve.
Watch the trailer for The Judge
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