From director David Dobkin, who is known for comedies like Wedding Crashers and The Change-Up, The Judge is Dobkin’s first foray into drama. While still intertwining some comedic elements, Dobkin creates an overall feel of family drama mixed with courtroom thrills. The Judge tugs at heartstrings but also makes you laugh. Despite a few awkward moments where these two moods were confused, this blend generally works well throughout the film.
The film takes place in present-day Carlinville, Indiana, where during a high-profile case, lawyer Hank (Robert Downey Jr.
) attends his late mother’s funeral. Old wounds are opened up by his strained relationship with his brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio
), his younger brother Dale, and their father Joseph (Robert Duvall
) who has been a judge for the past 40 years. A bit of a hard-ass, Joseph treats his life and family as a courtroom. Soon after the funeral,Joseph’s car hits a murderer he convicted in the past. Joseph is accused of the crime and is put on trial. Hank takes over the case, much to his dismay, and attempts to prove his father’s innocence. There is also a sub-plot between Hank and his former high school flame, Samantha (Vera Farmiga
). The conversations between them are well-written and acted, but the film doesn’t feel as invested as it should. As the story continues we delve into the relationship between Hank has Joseph. Downey and Duvall play off each other very well and it is easily the film’s main strength. This is also where some of the most powerful moments of the film surface, especially a scene where Hank helps Joseph in a distressing moment of need.
Though the relationships are enjoyable, the true drama of the film shines through during the courtroom scenes. The details of the actual death are very hazy, but they are provided in small doses that make audiences feel like they are discovering the events at a realistic pace. Billy Bob Thornton also does a good job as the prosecution lawyer. His character as the intense and passionately focused prosecution lawyer is cliché, especially with the overdone steel-expandable cup that sounds like a sword whenever it opens.
The performances in the film are top notch all around, with Robert Downey Jr. stealing the show with his signature brand of comedic/dramatic acting. He is convincing as a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. I can’t give credit to Downey without also giving credit to Robert Duvall for his portrayal of the stern title character. Though Joseph is sometimes frustratingly stubborn, Duvall is marvelous at portraying a man whose body and mind are slowly failing him.The supporting cast is just as good, especially Vincent D’Onofrio who was surprisingly compelling as the brother who had lost his future career due to a car accident. His character is familiar, funny, and heartbreaking all at the same time.
The technical aspects of The Judge are a far cry from Dobkin’s previous efforts of Wedding Crashers and The Change-Up. The first is in the form of Janusz Kaminski’s wonderful cinematography that adds a feeling of polish to the picture, with some very well-crafted shots and nice tricks like a blown-out window or a picturesque waterfall placed in the background at choice moments. At the Q&A session after the Heartland Film Festival screening, director David Dobkin said that he grabbed some inspiration from the classic film To Kill a Mockingbird, which you can see in the way the courtroom was constructed and several of the camera shots. The score by Thomas Newman is not extraordinary, but accompanies the film’s transitions from drama to comedy very well without getting in the way.
All in all, The Judge is a film that does a decent job of mixing together drama and comedy in a formula that isn’t forced or inappropriate, but sometimes lays its message on too thick and gets too cliché at times. Also the film drags on 20 minutes too long. The wonderful casting and performance by the actors accompanies with some beautiful shots made this an enjoyable film. The Judge is a movie that will make you laugh, cry, and truly enjoy the experience and make audiences want to watch it again.
VERDICT : Great
The Judge is a film that may suffer from laying out its message too thick or goes on too long, but don’t let that stop you from seeing a wonderful film that has heartwarming performances with some great comedy too.
POSITIVES : Wonderful performances & chemistry from Robert Downey Jr. & Robert Duvall. Some great comedic elements. Great cinematography.
NEGATIVES : Is too cheesy with some themes, 20 minutes too long.