In his recent Reddit AMA, Robert Downey Jr. was asked why the marketing campaign for his latest vehicle, The Judge, went from selling the film as a drama to pitching it as a bawdy comedy. He responded:
“Audiences were telling us that the…dramatic aspects of the film were… what was holding their attention, however as our test scores were going higher…much of that was due to the…moments of laughter and release…Team Downey and the studio decided it was natural to lean in to that. At its core, you could call it a drama.”‘
If that statement seems like a contradiction in terms, you ought to see the film it’s referencing. Indeed, The Judge is a baffling, bipolar blend of gravitas and goofiness that never quite manages to find its footing amidst a spate of tonal shifts. The film follows Hank Palmer (Downey) a slick Chicago lawyer who is forced to return to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana to attend his mother’s funeral. There, Hank must contend with ineffectual older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), mentally handicapped younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong), and, of course, his overbearing father Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall). Once the service ends, Hank is excited to get out of Dodge, only to find himself forced back when his dad becomes the prime suspect in the vehicular murder of a criminal he’d once mistakenly let off the hook in court.
From here, the film goes into generic courtroom mode mixed with a dollop of maudlin melodrama, as Hank takes the stand to defend his father, leading to emotional revelations while hitting every perfunctory note of the domestic tearjerker. The Judge is suffering from Cancer, which could be the only defense Hank can use to prove he wasn’t in his right mind during the murder. Hank’s marriage is crumbling, and he invites his young daughter (Emma Tremblay) out to visit him, leading to cutesy bonding over ice cream. Hank rekindles his romance with old flame Samantha (Vera Fermiga), but things get complicated when he learns he may be the father of her daughter. Everyone has juicy secrets– car accidents, infidelity, dementia–all of which are revealed via yelling and crying.
If all of these histrionics were presented with a straight face, the film would be boring, but at least it wouldn’t be confusing. All the major plot points in The Judge are serious (murder, childhood trauma, et, al.), and the stakes are high, but none of that dissuades director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) from constantly inserting attempts at broad comedy. For example, the opening scene of the film takes place in a bathroom and involves Hank urinating on another lawyer’s shoes. From there, the gags keep getting more obtuse, treating every woman as a sex object (Farmiga is saddled with puns involving “pie slices”), and portraying the autistic Dale as an offensively broad caricature.
All these sins could be forgiven if the big leads came through with great performances, but alas, it was not meant to be. Downey Jr. continues his five-year-long streak of playing characters that overtly mirror himself and, although his magnetism is undeniable, the Tony Stark shtick is wearing thin. Similarly, the legendary Robert Duvall seems to be phoning his turn in from some far-off location, imbuing his rangy character with all but one note. So, what can be said for a project packing all the necessary ingredients for substance that then squanders them so carelessly? Considering the clout of everyone involved (especially Marvel-magnate RDJ), I suppose it would be: “better luck next time”.
Currently in theaters.
Films are rated on a scale of 5 stars (must-see), 4 stars (exceptional), 3 stars (solid), 2 stars (average) and 1 star (unworthy).