Review by Gordon Justesen
Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax
Shepard, Billy Bob Thornton
Director: David Dobkin
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 141 Minutes
Release Date: January 27, 2015
“How does it feel, Hank, knowing every person you represent is guilty?”
“It’s fine. Innocent people can’t afford me.”
The Judge is movie whose cast alone should be worth the price of admission. The very idea of a pair of actors such as Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall portraying son and father should be enough to make any movie lover see it. But, as much as there is to like about this movie, a much greater movie should have resulted instead of a barely good one.
By blending in everything from courtroom drama, family drama, light touches of comedy here and there, not to mention moments that aim right for the heartstrings, The Judge ends up being an overlong exercise in tonal shifts that just happens to contain some great acting. Again, you simply can’t lose with a cast like this. In addition to the two Roberts, we get a splendid supporting cast featuring the likes of Vincent D’Onofrio, Vera Farmiga and Billy Bob Thornton.
Downey plays Hank Palmer, an all too self satisfied Chicago defense attorney who could care less if his clients are innocent. One day during a court hearing, he receives a phone message informing him that his mother has past away. This means he has to put all legal matter aside and pay a visit to the small Indiana town he tried oh so hard to leave behind.
This also means he has to come face to face with his father, Joseph Palmer (Duvall), a veteran and long respected judge. Their heavily flawed relationship is telegraphed instantly, indicating that old wounds will be reopened as the story progresses. And matters are made even worse when the judge himself becomes the prime suspect in a hit and run incident, resulting in him on trial...with son Hank defending him.
Director David Dobkin has mostly been known for directing broad comedies such as Wedding Crashers and The Change Up. Though he pulls off the dramatic proceedings here much better than one might expect, I can’t help but suspect that Dobkin (who also co-wrote the film) was unable to fully go outside his comfort zone. This might explain why the movie goes all over the place in terms of tone, with subplots played for laughs such as Hank hooking up with a young bartender who ends up being the daughter of a former flame of his (Vera Farmiga).
As much as the film is devoted to the flawed relationship between Downey and Duvall, which is clearly where it excels, it would have worked better if more focus was applied to that story element instead of wandering elsewhere. Another misfortune is the fact that the courtroom intrigue, not to mention the murder case itself, isn’t as gripping as it should be, and that’s saying a lot when you have no less than Billy Bob Thornton as the prosecuting attorney.
For an actor’s showcase, though, this film is perhaps one of the best examples in recent memory. Watching two mesmerizing figures like Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall play off one another is a treat in and of itself. But they and the rest of the cast deserve a far better film than the slightly unfocused one at hand.
Warner’s Blu-ray handling of this movie is absolutely spot on. But then again, it’s easy to deliver a solid picture quality when the movie at hand has Spielberg regular Janusz Kaminski serving as cinematographer. The end result is a crisp, consistently detailed picture that the 1080p brings to absolute vivid life. Colors are most astounding, especially in outdoor sequences.
This is a dialogue driven piece, first and foremost. With the exception of periodic music playback and ambient settings captured here and there, the most that you’re gonna get from this DTS HD mix is how it works with the dialogue delivery, which it handles tremendously well. I will also mention that an early moment of a judge slamming his gavel ranks as probably the loudest such scene I’ve ever heard, so the sound presentation should indeed be credited for that, as well!
Included on this Warner Blu-ray release is a commentary track with director/co-writer David Dobkin, two featurettes in the form of “Inside The Judge” and the very amusing “Getting Deep with Dax Shepard”. Lastly, there’s close to twenty minutes worth of Deleted Scenes.
For all it’s good qualities, The Judge is a film that deserves to be so much greater than it turned out. The chemistry of the two leads alone makes it hard to not fully give this one a pass. Shorten the film by about a half hour and add some juice to the courtroom proceedings...then we would’ve had a real winner.