“The Judge” and “The Monuments Men” are my two worst films of 2014 (so far), even if both contain moments that demonstrate the level of talent involved in both projects. You can search this site for my take on the latter, but having freshly absorbed the former, I can attest that there’s nothing more dispiriting to a film lover, than to see a cast this prestigious have to attempt to hold up a script (credited to Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque) this dreadful. Downey, Duvall, and company battle mightily, but their success with what’s been penned is limited. There is a scene between Duvall and Downey in a bathroom mid-film, that is stark and sobering in its depiction of illness and old age. Too bad the movie embraces gooey sentiment more than the brave illustrations of this nature. The film is gorgeously lensed by master cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. But the content is all soap-opera, convoluted piffle.
Hank Palmer (the always engaging Mr. Downey) is a big city defense lawyer, returning to his small town Indiana home for the funeral of his mother. Reluctant to return, mainly due to the strained relationship he has with his local judge father (Mr. Duvall, fine here). Hank has SOME stay! He works through the guilt of inadvertently ruining his older brother’s (my favorite performance in the film, from Vincent D’Onofrio) fledgling professional sports career, and happily reunites with his timid, mentally handicapped younger brother (Jeremy Strong, who’s okay in one of those contrived, unbelievably awful, noble, cuddly “retard” roles…didn’t Downey himself rank on these in “Tropic Thunder”?). Meanwhile, he rekindles a relationship with old flame, diner waitress (or maybe more, we later learn) Sam (the delightful and sexy Vera Farmiga, really slumming), and also has a make-out session with…well, you’ve got to see and hear it to believe it. When Poppa Judge is accused of a revenge-motivated hit-and-run (so soon after his wife’s funeral?!), guess who’s pegged to defend him? And Hank will have to harness all of his big-city lawyerly prowess, to defeat the dastardly prosecutor, Dwight Dickham (honestly…Dickham? This script is atrocious. But Billy Bob Thornton milks what he can out of it.). What a way to come to tems with your daddy issues.
Director David Dobkin is best known for goofy comedies like 2005’s “Wedding Crashers” and 2003’s “Shanghai Knights”. Owen Wilson was the star of both of those, but I guess he wasn’t available for “The Judge”, because you could easily picture him sliding into Downey’s shoes as Hank. The reason I mention that, is because Mr. Wilson has one of those personas that instantly make you think of goofy fare. And make no mistake, “The Judge” is goofy. It labors to be serious and melancholy and nostalgic…but its simply too ridiculous to find much purchase. There’s a penultimate scene involving Bit-O-Honey candy, that strives to be poignant, but had me snickering at its maudlin, syrupy execution. It’s definitely well-acted, but a foolish screenplay device. And the final shots play like a set-up for a future television series. Oh no…I hope I didn’t just give anyone an idea. “The Judge” gets a verdict of “stinks”.