' Cinema Romantico: The Judge

Monday, November 02, 2015

The Judge

There is a scene midway through “The Judge” when Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.), the requisite prodigal son returned home, first discovers his father, Joseph (Robert Duvall), has cancer. In that instant, Downey Jr. the actor perceptibly overtakes the character he’s playing. He puts this wry little spin on the standard aw-shucks grin, as if he’s saying to himself, as if he’s saying to Duvall, as if he’s saying to us, “Well hell, I held out as long as I could.” I mean, he knows where “The Judge” is going; we know where “The Judge” is going; everyone knows where “The Judge” is going. But like the lawyer Downey Jr. plays with semi-rich aplomb, one who tap dances with witnesses and proficiently charms juries who should otherwise be resistant to his blood-suckingness, he can only obfuscate for long. You can’t stop what’s coming and in this case what’s coming is your standard wheezy tale of redemption. You can practically sense Downey Jr. wanting to break character and shout at director David Dobkin “Objection!” To which, no doubt, Warner Bros. declared “Overruled.”


Hank is estranged from Joseph, whom he calls him “Judge”, like everyone does, because it’s that kind of movie. A cocky, morally bankrupt, big city defense lawyer with no qualms about representing the repugnant human fowl rich man’s America has to offer, Hank has returned home to quaint Indiana (where a majestic waterfall-side diner that really exists is the best thing in the whole film) for his mother’s funeral. A parent’s death is enough plot for most movies but “The Judge” ain’t about ma; it’s about pa. And pa, the night of the burial, winds up in a fatal hit & run, one that has left an unscrupulous young man dead – an unscrupulous young man whom The Judge knows all too well from the courtroom. All signs indicate The Judge found the unscrupulous young man guilty by the court of the lonely ol’ highway and ran him over. The Judge is taken into custody. The Judge will stand trial. Of course, The Judge claims he can’t remember. He’s having memory problems on account of the cancer and all. Eventually, willingly, yet also unwillingly, partially on account of his brother, Hank is pulled into this mess, forced to represent his own father, seemingly just days after his mom died (the film is vague about time), all while coming to grips with the fact that he may have a daughter with the small town gal (Vera Farmiga) whom he ditched years ago. (One early scene finds him making out with the girl who turns out to be his daughter. When the revelation is made, it gets about half of a quizzical “Wait, what?” look from Downey Jr. and nothing more. It’s that kind of movie.)

Sixteen years ago Duvall starred in another legal thriller for which he would earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination, “A Civil Action”, and there his character viewed the law as something like a dodge or hustle, to quote Dean Yeager. It wasn’t a courtroom he entered; it was a playground, a place to view the law from oblique angles and have fun with it. After all, the law mostly existed to pad the pockets of dudes who already had everything, and to screw over those with nothing, and he knew, and you knew it, and so let’s just do the dance. If you took a stand for something decent, well, you wound up like John Travolta – that is, plunking your ass down in bankruptcy court. Hank Palmer is born more of Duvall in “A Civil Action” than in “The Judge.” But “The Judge”, like The Judge, treats the law – pardon me, The Law – with a grand solemnity. In his introductory scene, The Judge lectures a rapscallion teen about The Law, forcing him to sign his truck over to his pregnant girlfriend, which seems like a stretch but, hey, plot-hole-picker-outer, who are YOU to question The Law? That potentially sets “The Judge” up for fascinating insight into these two ideals clashing, and gaining more intrigue when The Law turns out to have more subtle dimensions

But there are no dimensions. Any sign of characterization is merely a screenwriting weight to drag the movie toward its redemptive finish line. Consider Hank’s younger brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong), who is created as a guy carrying a camera with him everywhere so he can record key events and then play them back at important moments. In one of the most disgraceful cinematic moments I can recall, a tornado suddenly drops from the sky, forcing the family into the basement where the brother shows a home video that is ever so neatly constructed to essentially function as a time capsule of a family gone from good-to-sad. It’s incredible to witness, the most damning piece of evidence that the trial is rigged from the get-go, as if the whole production is being manipulated from a backroom by Rankin Fitch, which might have made for one helluva meta movie. Like “Adaptation.”

You remember “Adaptation”, with a Brian Cox version of Robert McKee who is basically The Judge of the screenwriting world. “Don't you dare bring in a deus ex machina,” Cox as McKee declares. “Your characters must change, and the change must come from them.” No one’s change in “The Judge” comes from them; it comes instead from the filmmakers, following the rules of screenwriting legislation to the tee, and making us all yearn for someone, anyone to break hacky dramatist’s law.

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