His hon­our in the dock

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews - Evan Wil­liams

THE Judge is another of those films that be­gin with a dys­func­tional fam­ily com­ing to­gether for a fu­neral, and my hopes weren’t high. I’d read that Jack Nicholson had turned down the role of the ail­ing judge (how good would that have been); that Robert Downey Jr, whom I last saw in an Iron Man cos­tume, was play­ing the smart lawyer; that Nick Schenk’s orig­i­nal screen­play had been rewrit­ten by some­one called Bill Dubuque; that a character is sprayed with urine in a pub­lic toi­let in the open­ing scene; and the whole thing, de­scribed in the in­ter­net guides as a “com­edy-drama”, ran for well over two hours. None of this in­spired con­fi­dence. But never judge a film by ad­vance pub­lic­ity. Di­rected by David Dobkin, The Judge is among the year’s most sat­is­fy­ing en­ter­tain­ments: rich, hu­mane, much of it greatly mov­ing.

It is true that the best bits take place in a court­room, and court­room dra­mas, as we know, are a sure-fire for­mula for sus­pense. They’re like a footy grand fi­nal — a strug­gle be­tween op­pos­ing sides played ac­cord­ing to rules be­fore a par­ti­san au­di­ence un­der the eye of an allpow­er­ful ref­eree (or judge). I rather en­joy all that gavel-bang­ing, with lawyers ap­proach­ing the bench and cries of ob­jec­tion, sus­tained or over­ruled. They’re as much part of Hol­ly­wood cul­ture as they are of the US le­gal sys­tem. The Judge may be over­long and bur­dened with too many sub­plots, but the court­room scenes are as grip­ping as any­thing in The Ver­dict or Anatomy of a Mur­der. And an­chor­ing ev­ery­thing is a per­for­mance of com­pelling dig­nity and grav­i­tas by Robert Du­vall, now 83, and like Nicholson, Clint East­wood or Robert Red­ford in their ad­vanced years, an un­doubted Hol­ly­wood icon.

Du­vall plays Joseph Palmer, a judge of the old school, up­right and uni­ver­sally re­spected in his home town of Car­lin­vale, In­di­ana. Of his three sons, the most suc­cess­ful is Hank (Downey), a sharp-wit­ted Chicago de­fence at­tor­ney who spe­cialises in get­ting white-col­lar crim­i­nals off the hook. Nat­u­rally his fa­ther dis­ap­proves of him. We are given a sam­ple of Hank’s court­room tac­tics in an early scene when he vets prospec­tive jurors at a mur­der trial by ask­ing them to tell the court the words on their car bumper­stick­ers. One guy’s sticker reads: “Wife and dog miss­ing — re­ward for dog.” It’s not clear whether the guy makes it to the jury, but it’s clear The Judge is shap­ing up as a good ex­am­ple of a Hol­ly­wood com­edy-drama.

Back home in Car­lin­vale for his mother’s fu­neral, Hank is re­luc­tantly re­united with his griev­ing fa­ther and learns to his dis­may that the judge is sus­pected of a hit-and-run killing. The vic­tim, left dead on the road­side, is a low-life crim­i­nal whom the judge had ev­ery rea­son to hate and fear. The ev­i­dence is strong, and the case is ea­gerly pursed by Billy Bob Thorn­ton’s tough prose­cut­ing at­tor­ney. Hank acts as a kind of un­of­fi­cial de­fence lawyer for his fa­ther, ob­serv­ing the pro­ceed­ings in court and coun­selling Joseph be­hind the scenes. Dobkin keeps a firm hand on the es­sen­tials. I could have done with­out the sen­ti­men­tal end­ing, that business with Hank’s ex-girl­friend (Vera Farmiga) and his un­faith­ful wife, the ex­plicit de­pic­tion of Joe’s bath­tub in­con­ti­nence, and the cu­ri­ously off­beat re­tard jokes (Joseph’s youngest son is the men­tally chal­lenged Dale, who likes film­ing at ran­dom with an old-fash­ioned home movie cam­era), but the film never loses its grip. Du­vall is a spe­cial­ist with slightly de­ranged, bro­k­endown char­ac­ters, and he’s done noth­ing bet­ter than this.

HG WELLS wrote a fa­mously scary sci­ence fic­tion fan­tasy, The Is­land of Dr Moreau, which has been filmed at least three times, no­tably as The Is­land of Lost Souls, a hor­ror clas­sic with Charles Laughton. Dr Moreau’s is­land was a hell­hole of grotesque an­i­mal ex­per­i­ments, with a mad sci­en­tist turn­ing jun­gle crea­tures into hu­mans. An­i­mal trans­for­ma­tions are now a sta­ple sub­set of the hor­ror genre. Jeff Gold­blum was turned into a fly in the sec­ond adap­ta­tion of George Lan­ge­laan’s story, and think of all those were­wolf pic­tures, from Satur­day af­ter­noon B-movies to The Howl­ing. I once watched a cheap 1970s shocker with the imag­i­na­tive ti­tle Sssssss, about a mad sci­en­tist — they’re all mad, of course — who turned some poor bloke into a king cobra.

You’d think Kevin Smith would be above this sort of thing. He has a wry in­tel­li­gence and a sharp sense of hu­mour, and is re­mem­bered for plea­sures such as Chas­ing Amy and his quirky 1994 com­edy Clerks, a big hit in its day. You won­der what per­suaded him to make Tusk, which falls neatly into the “com­edy-drama-hor­ror” cat­e­gory (oh no). Ap­par­ently he was in­spired by watch­ing a pod­cast in which some­one call­ing him­self the Kill Bill Kid slices his own leg off with a sword. In Tusk, which Smith wrote and di­rected, a nerdy character called Wal­lace Bry­ton (Justin Long) runs a pod­cast stu­dio from which sim­i­lar en­ter­tain­ments are sent to sub­scribers on the in­ter­net. It’s won­der­ful how some peo­ple make a liv­ing th­ese days.

Head­ing off to Canada in search of the Kill Bill Kid, Wal­lace gets lost in the back­woods of Man­i­toba and stum­bles into a spooky old house where he’s kid­napped by Howard Howe, a psy­cho played in won­der­fully creepy style by Michael Parks, whose avun­cu­lar charms kept re­mind­ing me of Rolf Har­ris. Awak­en­ing from a drugged sleep, Wal­lace dis­cov­ers his legs are miss­ing, am­pu­tated by the mon­strous Howard, who plans to turn Wal­lace into a wal­rus. A wal­rus isn’t ev­ery­one’s favourite an­i­mal but, as al­ways, one gives high marks to Smith for orig­i­nal­ity. This must be the weird­est film I have seen for a long time. For once the term “com­edy-drama-hor­ror” seems wholly ap­pro­pri­ate, if not unan­swer­able.

Parts of it are funny, parts are sus­pense­ful and parts of it — to put it mildly — are hideously aw­ful. Hor­ri­ble may be a bet­ter word than hor­rific. There’s a lot of em­pha­sis on Cana­dian-Amer­i­can jokes (a branch of com­edy un­likely to strike chords with lo­cal au­di­ences) and an im­prob­a­ble back­story in­volv­ing Howard’s af­fec­tion for a wal­rus that he cred­its with sav­ing his life. Smith likes film­ing in long un­bro­ken takes. Most of the cast were un­fa­mil­iar to me, though Ha­ley Joel Os­ment, the scared young­ster who saw ghosts in The Sixth Sense, makes a pleas­ing ap­pear­ance as Wal­lace’s pod­cast­ing off­sider. The de­tec­tive lead­ing the search for Wal­lace is listed in the cred­its as Guy La­pointe — a pseu­do­nym for a ma­jor Hol­ly­wood star whose iden­tity we are asked not to re­veal. Au­di­ences should have no trou­ble spot­ting him. I’m still try­ing to de­cide what to make of the movie.

Robert Downey Jr and Billy Bob Thorn­ton in

The Judge, top; Justin Long and Gen­e­sis Ro­driguez in Tusk, left

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