The Good: Adequate performances
The Bad: Very predictable plot and character arcs, Nothing stellar on the acting front, Contrived romantic subplots
The Basics: The Judge suffers more from the fact that we’ve seen it all before . . . as opposed to the fact that the previews showed the entire flick.
Lately when I find myself bitching about Oscar Pandering Season, I find myself making the consistent argument that this time of year is just shameless for the studios’ attempts to get awards nominations by releasing their “star” films as close to the nominating time as possible. In recent years, this process has become so transparent that many of the studios release their September through December offerings on the festival circuit to build the hype for their Oscar hype films. The Judge is one of those films; it did very well on the film festival circuit and seems to be the darling of critics everywhere now that it has been released theatrically.
I, for one, am at a loss as to why.
Having seen the preview trailers for The Judge for the last six months in front of various movies, I was shocked by Warner Brothers. In addition to making The Judge an obvious attempt to garner award nominations by playing to the festivals and then having a wide theatrical release during Oscar Pandering Season, Warner Brothers made a preview trailer that shows almost the entire film. Seriously; Warner Brothers not only thinks that viewers are so stupid now that if they do not see their Oscarbait proximate to nomination time, but if they don’t show the entire movie in the trailer, people won’t even bother with the full film! Unfortunately, in the case of The Judge there is a self-defeating aspect to this approach; more than any other film this year, watching the trailer to The Judge is watching the full substance of the film. The only aspects not included in the trailer are the subplots involving Dale Palmer (who either autistic or mentally retarded, it is not clear) and the actual verdict to the trial. As insulting as it may seem, the two hour, twenty minute film is rather thoroughly reduced to a two minute trailer and the “extended” version does not actually add anything of substance.
But the reason for Warner Brothers’s approach is actually fairly clear when one watches The Judge. The family drama is one that virtually everyone has seen before. Even before the trailers gut the film of its big moments, viewers have seen The Judge. We’ve seen the estranged son return to the family only to find some value there (in fact, last year at Oscar Pandering Season, there were several films like that!), we’ve seen the obvious legal drama films, and we’ve even seen Robert Downey Jr. playing the apparently callous lawyer with a heart of gold. Seriously, Ally McBeal (reviewed here!) was huge; we’ve seen every element in The Judge before. Why did Warner Brother think that making this film would be Oscar-worthy news? (And why are so many critics falling for it?)
Hank Palmer is a Chicago lawyer who is successful and cold, getting apparently guilty people off without remorse by using legal technicalities. As he is about to get the verdict on a case he might just lose, he gets a phone call from his brother telling him that his mother has died. Leaving his estranged wife and daughter behind, Hank heads to his home town of Carlinville, Indiana. There, he finds his father (the Judge Palmer) on the bench, but he is unable to remember the name of his bailiff (who has been working for him for twenty years). Hank’s siblings are a little cold to him, mostly for the fact that he abandoned the family years before. But Hank’s older brother warms to him when Hank stops a bar fight before it begins by talking to the would-be assailants. After the funeral, the Judge remains distant to Hank and Hank gives up on his relationship with his father once again.
But right before his plane will take him away, Hank gets another phone call and learns that his father is being questioned by the police for a vehicular homicide that occurred while Hank and his brothers were out at the bar. Despite his father rejecting his help, Hank intervenes with the police and sits in when Judge Palmer meets with his part-time lawyer, C.P. Hank stays in town when the prosecution hires a special prosecutor from out of town. With C.P. recusing himself, Hank takes over the case. Despite his father’s desire to let the truth win out, Hank starts to build a defense using his familiar tactics. In the search for the truth about how Blackwell died, Hank begins to learn more about his father and the two begin to accept one another for who they are.
The Judge is packed with problems, the most significant of which is how the narrative is diluted. A few years ago, there was a wonderful episode of Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (reviewed here!), where the writing staff leaves and on their way out the door, the one remaining writer/executive producer gives a note to the departing writer for his new project. He advises him to avoid using voiceovers (good advice always, as far as I am concerned!) and give the hero a sidekick to talk to. This, he argues, will allow him to get a lot of the exposition out of the way in the form of dialogue. Ever since seeing that, I’ve kept an eye on peripheral characters in television shows and movies and I am shocked by how many works have illegitimate characters; The Judge is one such work.
The Judge includes Hank’s daughter, Lauren, and Hank’s ex-girlfriend, Samantha, and both serve much more the purposes of plot exposition than they enhance the characters. Lauren becomes a tool by which Hank is able to make explicit references to the causes for the fall-out between himself and the Judge. It is not enough that Hank and his father have a terrible relationship; Hank has to explain why and the only “outsider” in the film is Hank’s daughter, so she becomes an expository tool and it is pretty obvious if one knows what to look for (not the least of which is that the performers seem to have minimal emotional connection!).
In a similar fashion, Vera Farmiga’s Samantha becomes a tool to explain the backstory of the Blackwells and how they relate to the Palmers. The case against the Judge is fraught with history and Samantha becomes the conduit by which the animosity of the Blackwells is fully explained. The characters of Samantha and Lauren dilute and explain the narrative and they do so in an unfortunately obvious way.
These flesh out an otherwise mundane legal and family drama. Is the acting good? Yes, but it falls well within the established ranges of all the performers; will we see something new from Robert Downey Jr.? No, we’ve seen cocky and hurt from him before. Will we see anything new from Robert Duvall? No, we’ve seen him cranky, angry and somewhat emotional in roles before. Will any of the supporting cast – Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Billy Bob Thornton, Dax Shepard – surprise or amaze us? No; this is very much a film that gets the most out of the money being spent on Robert Downy Jr. and Robert Duvall.
The result is a bland, low-side-of-average film that is not surprising or even adequate; The Judge is certainly not award-worthy.
For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
To Write Love On Her Arms
Dragons Of Camelot
Horrible Bosses 2
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1
Hit By Lightning
Listen Up Philip
The Best Of Me
The Maze Runner
This Is Where I Leave You
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
| | |