The Judge, starring Robert Downey Jr, Robert Duvall and Vera Farmiga is meant to be a drama, and the Iron Man star tries to play a grown up instead of his usual glib Tony Stark persona. He succeeds despite an audience who found his every utterance devastatingly funny. Listed as a drama, and it is, The Judge has some lovely light comic touches to alleviate the heaviness of the plot, some moments work better than others. For the disturbing comic touch, reference the making out scene in the bar and its later significance. Despite the focus on the dramatic, it seems that the screening crowd thought the film was a comedy or a very funny dramedy.
This may be down to the marketing of the film which has trailers meant to show audiences the amusing bits versus the more serious laden parts from the film. There are certainly enough light hearted moments to classify the feature as a dramedy, but these comic moments, which are meant to lull the viewer so that any drama that follows is jarring, does feel a bit forced and unevenly paced.
The plot of The Judge has successful defending attorney Hank Palmer working for his obviously guilty client when he learns mid-trial that his mother has died. Asking for a continuance he leaves to attend the funeral. Once there, old animosities with his father Judge Joseph Palmer arise and Hank goes to leave when the judge is accused of vehicular homicide. The victim was a man that Palmer let off easy for an assault on his girlfriend years ago and when the man was released from jail he drowned his former girlfriend in a pond behind the judge’s house.
The film has a kitchen sink worth of issues to trot out before the audience. Firstly, Downey’s character has marriage problems, then his mother dies and not only do he and his father have issues, but there is the bigger problem of cancer and possible murder. On top of all this drama there is the backstory of Hank’s miserable childhood and his wrecking brother Glenn’s promising baseball career by rolling the car he is driving while high.
There is also the younger brother who has some sort of mental disability and a prosecuting attorney, Dwight Dickham (played by Billy Bob Thornton) who has it in for successful defence attorney Hank Palmer. That this film is a drama is without question in terms of plot line and sub plots and threads. It does feel, however, a little manufactured even without the added comic relief. The film seems to have been set up with a cast of characters full of various problems and issues in order to plow as much difficulty as possible into the all male family.
In some ways The Judge feels like a reworking of This is Where I leave You; multiple male siblings, someone with a mental difficulty, an unfaithful wife and the recent death of a close family member. By the end of each film there is a sort of retribution for one of the characters, in essence this film feels like a sort of Hollywood template for drama/comedy. There is also the idea that both Robert Downey Jr tries to play a grown up for a change and the similarity of Justin Bateman’s character realising that he must grow up.
Robert Downey Jr. does a more than capable job of leaving Tony Stark back home in the Marvel verse. While his Hank Palmer is glib and razor tongued, he is also full of anger at his father and even less perfect than Stark. He also has a loving relationship with his daughter, something that Iron Man does not have. Duvall plays a role that he could possible portray in his sleep at this point in his career. The man surpassed legendary status with his work some time ago and when an actor reaches his apex there are not many ways left to play a challenging part.
Billy Bob Thornton seems to have been hired to play the antagonistic prosecuting attorney because of his success in the small screen version of Fargo. While not exactly the devil, his character is still somewhat unpleasant. Vera Farmiga is almost wasted in her role of former girlfriend Amy who still loves Hank – a similar character to This Is Where I Leave You‘s Rose Byrne role of Penny Moore, Justin Bateman’s character’s old flame who still loves “Judd Altman.”
Forgetting about the two films that seem to be part of a template or formula, it has to be said that The Judge does feel a trifle manufactured. All this may go toward the apparent confusion at the screening where the audience felt the film was a comedy rather than a drama. Robert Downey Jr trying to play a grown in The Judge seems to have been lost in translation. The film opens October 10 in theatres across the country. Be prepared to like the film but not love it and do not be surprised if the audience find The Judge too funny as poor marketing seems to set up this misconception although later trailers seem to have moved away from this direction.
By Michael Smith
Brenden Palms Theatre