Saturday, October 18, 2014

‘The Judge’

The law rules
By James Colt Harrison

It’s refreshing to see Robert Downey in a film where he isn’t wisecracking, flying through the air as Ironman, and defeating the most horrific of space aliens. In the new Warner Bros. drama “The Judge” from director David Dobkin, we see Downey’s dramatic side  the one which can act. The film is based on a story by Dobkin and Nick Schenk, with the script written by Schenk and Bill Dubuque. 

Downey is Hank Palmer, a hotshot Chicago lawyer, who returns to his hometown in bucolic Indiana to attend his mother’s funeral. It’s obvious from the very outset that Hank doesn’t get along with his do-good father, Judge Joe, played by the magnificent Robert Duvall. Before production began, the part of the judge was offered to Jack Nicholson, but he’s too happy being semi-retired and he turned down the meaty part. No matter, Duvall is probably more appropriately cast as the nasty, curmudgeonly old man. We’re sure Nicholson would have made us laugh. 

Old wounds resurface between Downey and his father, a past neither want to remember. Was the Judge harsh with his son when he was a boy? That’s a foregone conclusion. It’s a bit of a cliché but it’s not overbearing. Downey and Duvall go at it and each tries to outdo the other with the dramatics, the screaming, the yelling, and the chewing of the scenery. Duvall wins on that score and may be in line for an Oscar® nomination come Academy Award® time. 

Wouldn’t you know there is an event that serves to bring the father and son together, albeit reluctantly on both their parts? A man who was sent to prison by the Judge turns up dead on the side of the road. With blood spattered on the Judge’s car, Judge Joe becomes the prime suspect and is arrested. It’s now up to son Hank to defend his father, a complete reversal of their roles as relatives. Dad fights it all the way and is very angry at this turn of events. Is he guilty or not? That’s what has to be proven in a court of law, and son Hank must pull out all his lawyerly tricks to defend good old dad. 

Billy Bob Thornton plays Dwight Dickham, a prosecutor who is determined to put the judge behind bars. Billy Bob cleans up nicely and wears designer suits, just like a society lawyer would. He plays his part with authority, and one can believe he is actually a defender of the law. 

Vincent D’Onofrio plays Downey’s pathetic loser brother Glen who, because of an accident as a teen, he lost his ability to play sports and have a winning professional career. He has now turned to fat and mopes around the house. D’Onofrio elicits sympathy from the audience and makes us feel his pain. Dax Shepard plays the doofus co-defender to Downey and provides the few laughs in the picture. He’s an engaging character and actor and always adds a little spark to what he does. 

Other actors making a favorable impression are veteran Ken Howard as the presiding judge, Leighton Meester as the beautiful young thing about town, Vera Farmiga as her mother and Downey’s past love,  and TV favorite David Krumholtz as Mike.
The film was shot in and around the Massachusetts small towns of Worcester, Shelburne Falls, Waltham, Dedham, and Millers Falls by the artist’s eye of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. He was nominated six times for the Academy Award® and won twice for “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.”

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