Lowering the bar considerably
Somebody ought to issue a bench warrant against the makers of this corny, endless so-called thriller, writes Donald Clarke
THE JUDGE Directed by David Dobkin. Starring Robert Downey Jr, Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Billy Bob Thornton 15A cert, general release, 141 min
Objection! Meretricious sentimentality! Objection! Badgering the audience! Where is this leading, your honour?
Where indeed? Heaven save us from the clown who wants to play Shakespeare or the comedy director who wants to be taken seriously. Rarely do such film-makers risk breaking new ground. More often than not, they knock together the sort of fat, worthy family drama that manages the impressive feat of being too sentimental even for Oscar voters.
A mere glance at the running time will confirm that David Dobkin, director of Wedding Crashers and Fred Claus, is seeking to extend his range. At 141 minutes, The Judge is more or less exactly as long as 2001: A Space Odyssey. Golly, we really do think ourselves important. Do we not?
That absurd stretch can be partly explained by the busy clutter of unnecessary subplots (about which more in a moment). But the main problem is that The Judge takes about an hour just to reach the starting line.
If you know anything about the film, you will know that Robert Downey Jr plays a flash, amoral lawyer – “Inno- cent people can’t afford me,” he quips – who is forced to defend his own dad (Robert Duvall), a small-town judge, in a murder trial. Before that, we have to watch our protagonist, one Hank Palmer, squabble with pneumatic wife, display affection for his daughter, and then crumble when news arrives of his mother’s death.
Hank has a long way to travel for the funeral. True, Chicago, where he practices robber-baron law, is only a few hundred miles from rural Indiana. But his hometown has somehow managed to remain stranded in 1957.
Janusz Kaminski’s absurdly overegged cinematography casts a heavenly light on rustic bridges, under-populated streets and ice-cream parlours gleaming with antique chrome.
Here’s Hank’s old love in the sparky form of Vera Farmiga. One brother (Jeremy Strong) suffers from a terrible condition known as Crass Movie Mental Retarda- tion: he films everything with an old Super 8 camera. Another (Vincent D’Onofrio) was once going to be a major league baseball player until “something happened” that almost certainly cast Hank in a poor light.
Then there’s Duvall’s Judge Joe. Well, he knows everybody and, though he loves the law, he believes that a bit of common sense is as useful in a courtroom as great knowledge of statute. He terrorises the family like a dime-store Eugene O’Neill antagonist and . . .
Hang on. Where’s this murder trial we were promised? Eventually, after endless preambles, the Judge is arrested for running over a man who, after lenient treatment for an earlier offense, went on to murder a young woman. (Inevitably, this also ends up being indirectly Hank’s fault.)
“Defend your honour,” the awful tagline shouts. Sure enough, Hank finds himself squaring up to Billy Bob Thornton’s suave prosecutor. Now, after 60 minutes, the film can begin.
What we have here is a middling episode of LA Law wrapped up in swathes of unnecessary complication and much hammy playing to the balcony. You wouldn’t say that Downey Jr and Duvall are bad. (Nor has the earth has shifted on its axis.) But both are offering the same stock performances that have been paying bills since the Clinton administration.
Downey does that thing were, to demonstrate eccentricity, he slows . . . way . . . down . . . in a sentence and then suddenly accelerates through the last few syllables. Duvall continues to squint into imaginary suns like a better-educated Walter Brennan.
The result is something worse than mere rubbish. It is rubbish with ideas way above its lowly station. Objection sustained!