Screens

Review: The Judge

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It's fun to watch Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall act. Downey has that smart-as-a-whip, rapid-fire delivery style where he darts between sarcasm and sincerity so quickly that he makes you dizzy. And Duvall is the master of intimidating characters, from cocky firebrands like Lt. Colonel Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now to every manner of bad-ass ready to chew up and spit out anyone foolish enough to get in the way.

The Judge is a melodrama that casts the Roberts as father and son (estranged, of course), giving each ample opportunity to strut their stuff. Filmmaker David Dobkin pulls out all the stops to show he is more than the guy who made Fred Claus. The result is entertaining and sometimes moving. It is also hooey, mixing undercooked storyline lines with groan-inducing clichés and slathering the concoction with showy cinematography and a pushy score.

Downey plays Chicago lawyer Hank Palmer, who responds to criticism about the clients he defends by saying, "the innocent can't afford me." At the beginning of the film, he is verbally accosted by the outraged prosecution attorney (David Krumholtz) while standing at the urinal and responds by — yes, really — turning toward his opponent and peeing on him. When John Belushi's Bluto did that in Animal House it was a scream. Watching it happen here is just sad.

After the death of his mother, Hank heads back to his hometown in southern Indiana for a quick visit. His brothers are there: Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio), who might have made it to the major league if his baseball dreams weren't crushed by ... a cliché, and Dale (Jeremy Strong), a home movie enthusiast dealing with some sort of mental challenge. That's all you will learn about the brothers, because the only people who matter are Hank and (cue the sound of thunder) the Judge, Duvall's highly respected and extremely righteous character.

Fine, so Hank will spend a few days in town and the father and son will gradually address their differences. But wait, there's more! While mourning the loss of his wife, the Judge takes his first drink in 28 years. Later, a man the Judge once sent to prison turns up dead on the highway. There's blood on the Judge's car and he can't remember what happened.

Charges are filed and Hank ends up joining the defense team, basically taking over for the flummoxed local lawyer (Dax Shepard) as they face off with a coldly efficient prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton). You know the prosecutor is a force to be reckoned with because he uses one of those collapsible metal drinking cups that you snap into place. Wait until you see him open and close it. Mercy!

Father-son issues. A major trial. What more do you need? How about Hank making out with a waitress named Carla (Leighton Meester) who turns out to be the daughter of Samantha (Vera Farmiga), his high school flame? Surely the movie couldn't hold any additional drama. Ah, but you know what they say: there's always room for a tornado that forces the menfolk together to watch home movies and do battle.

The Judge would be dismissible were it not for the fine acting. In addition to the Roberts, Shepard is appealing and a lean Billy Bob does a lot with a little. Hell, everybody's good. And within that lumpy screenplay are some genuine moments. There's a scene where one character has a bathroom accident and another helps clean him up. At the screening I attended, there wasn't a single giggle or "Eww!" during the segment, even when we briefly see the mess. The audience understood what was being said to them.

Perhaps next time Dobkin will give the viewer that level of respect throughout the whole movie.

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