One of the more interesting nominations for the upcoming Academy Awards was of Robert Duvall for The Judge. A prestige picture that fell flat both critically and commercially, Duvall’s nomination is a bit of an oddity because he wasn’t that special in it. The film as a whole wasn’t that special, either, despite how much of a great setup (and cast) that it has.
Hank Palmer (Downey Jr) is a brilliant but slightly shady attorney who’s life is turning upside down. He came from small town Indiana and now has an ideal life in suburban Chicago, at least on the outside. He’s a brilliant attorney who’s exceptionally wealthy with the near ideal family. But he’s about to leave his wife (Sarah Lancastere), who cheated on him, and his mother just died. Returning to the small town he disappeared from so many years ago for her funeral, his father (Duvall) winds up being charged with the murder of someone he has a past with.
Staying around, and having to deal with his past, this is a film that feels like it could’ve been an exceptional mini series as this is a film trying to be an epic family film but without enough depth despite a two and a half hour running time.
The problem is that the film is trying to tackle too many storylines with some depth when the obvious one, of a man coming to grips with a poor relationship with his father, is the best route available. There’s so many good actors one can see why David Dobkin wanted to have as much of the film in it as possible. It’s hard to have someone like Vera Farmiga as the girlfriend and keep her in a thankless, throwaway role as his girlfriend from high school. But its that subplot, as well as a couple of others, that keep the film from having the sort of razor like focus it should have.
The film’s strength is of Downey and Duvall, who give solid but not brilliant performances. Downey rightfully was passed up for any award of note, but Duvall is an interesting case. He’s a certified legend of cinema who can only add to one of the greatest resumes in film history. But this isn’t something that’ll wind up as one of his great performance; it’s marginally good at best. His name is what got him the nomination, nothing more, as this is a solid performance but not a brilliant one. Duvall is capable of more, even at this point in his career, and this isn’t brilliance from him.
With a much more focused film their relationship would make or break the film as opposed to being something we wish we could’ve had more of. One imagines there’s enough material left on the floor between the two to make it something more interesting than the underwhelming main plot seemingly sacrificed at points to flesh out smaller subplots that dominate the film. One gets the feeling that there was a lot of material cut from the film that could’ve shed some more light on this, material that was cut to keep the film from being well over the three hour mark.
If this had been a six hour mini series, which is what the film feels like (a condensed version of a mini series, ala the film version vs. the British version of State of Play), one can see why there’d be as many subplots as this film has. An exploration of Hank’s departure from his hometown, and his poor relationship with his entire family, can be explored in much more depth when you’ve got the time. This film doesn’t, as it feels like a sleek 90 minute film hiding among an hour of extra material shoved in to qualify it for awards season, leaving it with a lot of great subplots for a mini series but too much material for too little time for a feature film.
The Judge remains trapped in a weird place for a film; it’s too long and bloated to be an epic family dramedy about returning home and yet not long enough to really encapsulate the whole of what it could be. It remains a misfire of sorts, capitalized with one of the more baffling Oscar nominations of the past five years.
A couple of EPK pieces, and some deleted scenes, are included.
Warner presents The Judge. Directed by David Dobkin. Written by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Vera Farmiga, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester. Run Time: 141 minutes Rated R. Released on DVD: 1.27.15
Tags: Billy Bob Thornton, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, Robert Downey Jr, Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D'Onofrio