Remember how, earlier this year, a whole lot of people (like me) figured that The Judge would be a surefire Oscar contender and that Robert Duvall would probably receive an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor?
At the time, it made perfect sense. After all, in the past, courtroom dramas have occasionally been popular with the Academy and, while we all knew that The Judge probably wouldn’t be a modern-day Anatomy of a Murder, there was still reason to hope that the film would turn out to be a watchable melodrama. Add to that, the movie starred Robert Downey, Jr, an actor who is eventually going to win an Academy Award. Perhaps most importantly, the title character was played by Robert Duvall, one of the best American actors of all time and an actor who, having recently turned 83, might not get many more opportunities to win one final career-honoring Oscar.
It only made sense to assume that The Judge would be a contender.
And then the trailer came out and those of us who know our film history were left a little bit confused. It wasn’t that the trailer was necessarily bad. It was just that it made the film seem rather old-fashioned. It didn’t feel like a trailer for a film that was set to be released in 2014. If anything, it almost felt like a parody, as if it was one of those fake, overly Hollywood trailers that appeared at the beginning of Tropic Thunder. (The fact that the trailer featured Robert Downey, Jr. looking haunted only contributed to this feeling.)
And then the film opened and received reviews that were, at best, respectful and, at worst, scathing. And I quickly revised my Oscar predictions.
Despite the bad reviews and my own suspicion that the film would not be very good, I still wanted to see The Judge. I love melodrama. I love courtroom dramas. Even more importantly, the Roberts are two of my favorite actors. Robert Downey, Jr. is always a lot of fun to watch. Robert Duvall began his career playing Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird and, 52 years later, he’s still a great and uniquely American actor.
So, I saw The Judge this weekend and … well, it’s just a weird movie and not in a good way. Instead, it’s one of those movies where almost everything seems to be so strangely miscalculated that you really can’t imagine how it could have possibly happened. The film runs for nearly two and a half hours, despite only having enough plot for maybe an hour-long pilot for a potential mid-season replacement. The script is amazingly overwritten, full of portentous speeches and clichéd characters. It’s not enough that Robert Downey, Jr. has two brothers that he has to reconnect with while defending their father on a murder charge. Instead, one of the brothers also has to be vaguely developmentally challenged so that he can deliver cute lines that are full of “accidental wisdom.” It’s not enough that Downey reunites with his ex-high school girlfriend (Vera Farmiga, who deserves a better role) but she also has to have a daughter who might be his but could be someone else’s. It’s not enough that Billy Bob Thornton’s prosecuting attorney is slick and cunning but he also has to be a self-righteous crusader who has rather silly personal reasons for wanting to defeat Downey in court. It’s not enough that Downey and Duvall eventually end up yelling their personal grievances each other. Instead, they have to do it while a tornado literally tears through the front yard, the type of directorial choice that is so obvious and heavy-handed that it indicates that director David Dobkin (best known for directing comedies like Wedding Crashers) was desperate to prove that he could be dramatic.
Much like the similarly bad Love and Other Drugs, The Judge is one of those films that tries so hard to be all things to all viewers that it’s ultimately just a huge mess. Is it a murder mystery? If so, you have to wonder why we learn so little about the case against Duvall’s judge. Is it a romantic comedy about Robert Downey, Jr. returning to his small hometown and rediscovering what’s important in life? If so, you have to wish that the town had a little bit more character beyond just being a standard Hollywood version of what middle America is like. Is it a family drama? Well, then it would be nice to know more about the family dynamic beyond the fact that Duvall was stern, Downey was rebellious, and Vincent D’Onofrio is stuck playing the brother who never got to leave home. It’s a comedy with few laughs and a drama with few tears and ultimately, The Judge just does not work.
However, both of the Roberts give pretty good performances. That’s what makes The Judge truly frustrating. Duvall and Downey both do such good work but the material ultimately not only lets them down but lets the audiences down as well.