“The Judge” is a relatively simple film that wants you to think that it is more complicated. To do this, it drops in multiple subplots that have all reared their ugly heads in prior similar titles. But rather than enhance “The Judge,” they feel distracting and unnecessary, while simultaneously wanting stealing the show from the main characters and their banter.
Examples of subplots include the following: main character Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) making out with a young girl named Carla (Leighton Meester) only to find out his good friend Samantha (Vera Farmiga) is her mom, Hank doing battle in the courtroom with a nemesis from law school named Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), Hank battling inner demons about his former small town life, Hank and his soon to be ex-wife dueling about who gets custody of their daughter Lauren (Emma Tremblay). Note that I didn’t even mention one of the movie’s main characters, his role or the place he has in “The Judge.” Pretty disappointing, I’d say.
That character is, of course, Judge Joseph Palmer. Robert Duvall plays an old school, no nonsense lawman who takes his role in the justice system with the utmost seriousness. Hank is his son who truly dislikes his father for everything that made up his youth, and despite pleas from his brothers Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong), he holds a grudge. Despite being able to let it go temporarily so he can get through his mother’s funeral service, Hank and his father get into it on more than one occasion. But when his dad gets accused of running over a convicted murderer, Hank gives up his big city life to try and save his past and family.
My wife and I watched “The Judge” together, and her take was slightly more nuanced than mine. She liked how Downey Jr.’s character sort of came of age and developed a more mature perspective on his own life, both past and present. She also appreciated the multiple dynamics related to his romantic and family endeavors. While these components add to the character development, my perspective argues that they take away from the film’s momentum, which should be building on top of itself in a way that culminates in a final verdict for Duvall’s character.
Except…none of the courtroom scenes are stressful or dramatic, let alone exhilarating or intriguing. The questioning and objecting, by both the prosecution and defense, are lackluster, and we aren’t drawn in to the severity of the situation with any depth or breadth. I’ve been more invested in primetime episodes of “Law & Order” than I ever truly got with “The Judge.” The courtroom is almost dumbed down at more than one point by a character who Duvall wants in place to defend him despite Downey Jr. being fully capable and willing. Add this together with grainy visuals that distract and deteriorate from the overall experience to get a good attempt at the edge of your seat tension “A Few Good Men” had going for it.
“The Judge” isn’t necessarily a bad film, but it’s far from being a great film. The star power is there in lead and secondary roles, but these big names are lowered to a sub-par tier via the Nick Schenk and Bill DuBuque screenplay and director David Dobkin’s 141 minute run time. The dialogue throughout is essentially a Downey Jr. one-liner sprinkled amongst multiple lofty, broad generalities that feel our of place because they are. The banter between the Palmer men is periodically funny or insightful, but it doesn’t sustain itself for the entire 2+ hours. Dobkin’s emphasis on the subplots adds length, thereby watering down the entire experience by turning something that could have been done in less than two hours and making it unnecessarily long. I suppose when you get two major American acting personas in the same film, you milk it for all you can.
Warner Bros. isn’t really swinging for the fences with “The Judge.” The risk was likely too great, so playing it safe and doing something that ended up not being too great or too crummy seems like the answer to me. I wasn’t put off or overly impressed, but I did walk away from “The Judge” scratching my head and wondering about what might have been.
There is an embarrassing amount of grain all the way through this film. It comes out even more so than I expected because “The Judge” uses substantial natural light to tell its story. I’m not against grain, per se, or natural light, but when one feeds the other’s prominence and then the visuals throughout end up being so crummy you can’t help but squint, you’ve got a problem. A 1080p High Definition 2.40:1 video transfer significantly underperforms here, generating one of the most disappointing Warner Bros. Blu-ray disc transfers I have ever seen.
While being only slightly better than the video, the audio leaves much to be desired, too. This is about as plain Jane as it gets in terms of a DTS-High Definition English 5.1 Master Audio soundtrack. The lines that are spoken in the courtroom come through a-okay, but the rest of the spoken words feel softer and less clean. Almost as if the characters mutter under their breath, “The Judge” lacks full strength audio in more than one way. Other choices are French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, plus English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Along with a standard definition DVD and digital HD copy of the film, “The Judge” comes with some audio commentary, an interview with a few of the lead actors, a behind the scenes featurette and some deleted scenes. Nothing over the top or too boring, either. Sort of like the film.
A Final Word:
I wouldn’t put “The Judge” on any ‘best of’ list, but it is worth seeing with others to gage their reaction. If the things that bog it down are called out, you’ll know you are on the right track toward mediocrity.