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Film Review: The Judge by Scott Waldyn

Robert Downey Jr. wants to remind us he’s neither Iron Man nor Tony Stark in The Judge. He plays a quick-witted, fast-talking, big shot Chicago lawyer named Hank Palmer, who takes airplanes from Chicago (whose city limits touch Indiana) to some fictional town in Indiana called Carlinville, and he’s got a problem. Two problems, actually. No, make it three. In fact, Hank Palmer’s got a gargantuan web of problems that tangle together when the death of his mother draws him back to sleepy, rural Carlinville. This sets in motion an armada of conflicts in this courtroom family drama so drenched in melodramatic tropes that The Judge manages to make daytime soap operas blush.

The subplots in this film are so numerous, it’s hard to keep track of all of them. While the main plot concerns a murder trial revolving around Hank Palmer’s father, Judge Palmer (played by Robert Duvall), the subplots range from cliché to bizarre. In the course of two and a half hours, viewers witness the cold relationship between Hank and his father, court room procedurals, a romantic subplot concerning a former love interest, a disintegrating marriage, the shattered major league baseball dreams of Hank’s brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), the motivations of an evil prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton) with an axe to grind, a subplot hinting at incest, our protagonist coming to terms with his own shortcomings, and a judge struggling to keep a grip on his legacy, among comedic interludes. That’s quite a mouthful, and sequences juggling the many facets to this film are so jam-packed we, as an audience, take notice of tonal or thematic shifts as The Judge oscillates between everything taking place.

And that’s the main shortcoming of this movie – it’s just too ambitious. The Judge wants to be your one-stop shop. It tries to be your all-encompassing department store, your Wal-Mart. Some of the magic this movie could have had gets lost in this melodramatic interplay.

Truth be told, there are genuinely funny and enjoyable scenes in here. Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, and Vincent D’Onofrio are all at the top of their game. The only thing that bogs them down is the constant shift of attention from one plot to the next, sometimes forcing characters to take emotional 180 degree turns from one scene to the next. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s a very noticeable destruction of the rhythm Director David Dobkin is trying to maintain.

Beyond this disjointed rhythm, there’s a slight warping of who this feature is aimed at. For an overwhelming majority of the screen time, The Judge is a family drama targeted to an older audience. It’s the kind of experience meant for old geezers hacking up lungs full of phlegm in the theater or someone’s retired mom looking for something tailor-made for the Lifetime network in lieu of afternoon court TV. There are moments, however, where the target demographic shifts, and viewers sneak glimpses of tattoos or language meant to snag the attention of people who came to see Robert Downey Jr. because of his successful Iron Man films. This is especially jarring in that the entirety of The Judge is filmed like a Thomas Kincaid painting.

If there’s one thing Dobkin taught the audience during the course of this movie, it’s that he loves scenic landscapes. The small town diner everyone meets at? Just out the window is a vibrant red barn resting above some rapids. One would be hard-pressed to find such a glorious sight in a Midwestern small town. That said, the landscape is beautiful. If there’s one thing Dobkin does right with this picture is paint a lovely portrait to set these characters against.

As mentioned previously, the cast all deliver solid performances, suggesting that this film, with all of its stuffed subplots and diverse plethora of scenes, is meant more as an actor’s movie – the type of dream project that allows actors to bust out a wide range of emotion and dramatic talent. It’s no wonder Dobkin was able to assemble such a star-powered team.

At the end of the day, The Judge isn’t a bad film. It’s just not a great or even above average film. It struggles to find its own purpose, burying itself in a vast ocean of cinematic tropes and colorful imagery. The heart it yearns to tug at is washed under the current of too much ambition and not enough time to let emotions sink into the viewers. What good scenes pepper this picture are equally weighted by ridiculous or downright goofy scenes that sometimes leave us giggling or rolling our eyes, rather than clutching our chests in exasperated melodramatic tension.

Judging by that picturesque barn nestled atop those raging rapids, there was a well of magic the director was reaching for. His bottle missed the lightning, and this missed opportunity left us mystified and bewildered by a film that tried to touch us in all the wrong ways.

Writer, Social Miscreant, Gamer, Beer lover, Author, Deputy Director/Managing Editor at Literary Orphans and occasionally Mr. Comedian to all the wrong people. Scott Waldyn leads a quiet existence until his brain flares up and paints colors over a black and white reality.