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10/13/2014

How come 'The Judge'?

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The judge's son (Robert Downey Jr.) draws up a contract to defend his estranged father (Robert Duvall). (Warner Bros.)

Judge, if I may approach the bench, who directed this cliché-filled misuse of two of our finest living dramatic actors?

Let me amend that, Your Honor.  Much of the blame must go to the screenwriters.  Oops, check that.  It seems that you, David Dobkin, co-authored the original story as well.  Well, guilty as charged, then.

The Judge, which hangs around for well over two drawn-out hours, is a hard-hitting father and son courtroom melodrama that plays out in small-town Indiana.  If it wasn't for Academy Award winner Robert Duvall and two-time Oscar nominee Robert Downey Jr., this carnival of a courtroom drama would be thrown out of cinematic court the first time highly unlikely circumstances keep the plot chugging along to its inevitable, contrived conclusion.

That's the rub for critics and movie fans, though. The Judge pairs Duvall and Downey as an estranged small town judge on the brink of severe human frailty and the son who only interrupts his pending bitter divorce and his successful Chicago law practice of getting rich crooks off the hook because there's been a death in the family.

Once back in his old tiny Indiana burg, Downey's Hank Palmer clashes violently with the old man, Duvall's Judge Joseph Palmer, bumps into his old high school girlfriend "Sam" (Vera Farmiga) and steps in to defend his reluctant father when he's linked to a hit-and-run incident.

To be honest, Duvall and Downey together were all I needed to pay retail and stand in line.  Once there, though, I felt a little sorry for both tremendous actors who had to wade through one plot cliché after another to get to the money shots:  Duvall at 83 and Downey, who almost threw his acting gift down the drain through drug abuse, in fine form and duking it out verbally with the precise timing and nuance few other actors can bring.

Director Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) co-wrote the original story that became the flawed, almost laughable at times screenplay by Nick Schenk (Gran Torino) and Bill Dubuque (a first-timer).  Dobkin insults his audience and his actors repeatedly by asking everyone to suspend their disbelief to impossible limits.

What must Downey have thought when he read in the script that when he falls off his bicycle on the highway that the first driver by would be his old high school squeeze "Sam"?  Actually, it's testament to his will to stay in character that Downey (and Farmiga, who was so terrific opposite George Clooney in Up in the Air) got through the scene without breaking character and laughing hysterically.

This kind of silliness happens at all-too-regular intervals for, I suppose, comic relief in a movie crying out to play it straight and edgy as a taut drama about a father and son fighting through deep wounds to reconnect.

I can't even imagine Gregory Peck having to succumb to cliched bits of comic relief to portray deeply conflicted small town lawyer Atticus Finch. 

Of course The Judge is by no means a drama even remotely resembling the greatness of To Kill a Mockingbird or other memorable courtroom classics.

Occasionally, great acting trumps sloppy film-making, though.  This is one of those cases.

If you're a fan of Duvall (Tender Mercies, The Godfather) and/or Downey (Chaplin, Zodiac), The Judge is worth it just to see two great actors clash like verbal titans able to elevate even trite dialogue to the level of an art form.

MPAA rating:  R (for language including some sexual references)

141 minutes

Jalapeño rating:  2½ (out of 4)

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