Sunday, October 12, 2014

Review: The Judge

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
David Dobkin's "The Judge" is a mishmash of two genres - the courtroom procedural and the family mending melodrama - that have become rarer in recent years. While Dobkin's film relies on clich├ęs, which often come in abundance in the film's slightly overlong running time, this is a pretty decent character drama that draws some fine performances from its cast, which includes Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton, Vera Farmiga and Vincent D'Onofrio.

The film's first few scenes did not convince me that Downey Jr. - a fine actor - was going to stretch himself much, delivering his typical rapid-fire dialogue delivery as smarmy Chicago lawyer Hank Palmer, who is in the midst of a divorce with his younger wife and estranged from his family. Hank has no qualms in defending people who are obviously guilty and helping them walk free.

He gets called back to his small Indiana home town after receiving news that his mother has died and is not so warmly greeted by his father, Joseph (Duvall), a judge of 40-some years with whom he has not spoken in a long while. His older brother (D'Onofrio) and mentally handicapped younger brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong), are a little happier to see him. And because this is a Hollywood movie, there is, of course, the old flame (Farmiga), who now runs a cozy diner next to a waterfall. Needless to say, the visit does not go well.

But just as Hank prepares to head back to Chicago, he receives a call that his father has been involved in a potential homicide after allegedly striking a man on a bicycle with his vintage car. As it turns out, the man was a recently freed prisoner whom Joseph had sentenced years ago for drowning a young woman and not feeling remorseful about it.

You can probably guess what happens next. No? Well, Hank decides to defend his father, much to the paterfamilias' objection, and goes up against an equally smarmy - and somewhat self righteous - attorney played by Thornton.

So, "The Judge" does not win points for originality. In fact, down to its final scenes - other than a few hijinks toward the trial's end - you can see where the film is headed. However, the cast handles the material well and some of the numerous sequences aimed at being poignant manage to be so.

Downey may, at the film's beginning, hint at the type of performance you might expect from the actor, but then gives Hank a little more nuance and depth. Duvall does a fine job at playing the cantankerous old man, while Farmiga has her moments as the on-and-off romantic interest. And there's a pretty funny running joke involving her daughter's first encounter with Hank.

All in all, "The Judge" is a decent movie. It's not anything you likely haven't seen before, but rather a mostly successful cover of a familiar tune.

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