The Judge (2014)

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“You and I are finally done.”

Only a short while after seeing it and I still don’t know what kind of case to present to justify defending The Judge. Point A: The performances are nuanced and touching. Point B: The script is an emotional harp that too eagerly plucks away at the audience’s heartstrings. Point C: It is gorgeously photographed and technically sound. Point D: At two and a half hours, it’s almost 45 minutes too long. And the verdict is…I’ll take a continuance, your honor.

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Spearheaded by the brilliant Robert Downey Jr., The Judge wastes no time getting into the thick of the story despite it’s taxing length. RDJ plays Henry “Hank” Palmer. A top defense attorney in Chicago, Hank lives the high life that exonerating the guilty provides. He’s a self-described workaholic and an undiagnosed absentee husband / part-time father. Law, as he alone defines it, is his life. A call from older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) comes during a trial. Their mother passed away that morning. Hank reluctantly heads home to Carlinville, Indiana awaiting an uninviting handshake from his father (No, Carlinville is not a real place…as a Hoosier myself, I could instantly tell).

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Normally referred to as the Judge, rarely called Joseph, Robert Duvall takes on the role of the town’s longtime pedestal for respectable judgement. There’s an obvious divide between the Judge and his three sons. Glen was the athlete who should’ve made it big but now owns a local tire store. The youngest Dale (Jeremy Strong) is mentally challenged and totes an old fashioned camera most of the time. He disappointingly serves as the source of pined laughter brought on by his own disabilities the entire movie. Meanwhile, Hank is the prodigal son who never returned, until now. He’s forced to stay once his father gets into legal trouble that could potentially put him away for life. It takes far too long to figure out why they have such a great disconnect, but the payoff ultimately works.

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This movie, set in the Corn Belt, pops with a schmaltzy pizazz and an overbearing willingness to force the melodrama. With a few tweaks to the story, the first 30 minutes could have been entirely cut and the movie would have remained the same. It’s all just country road overkill, too earnestly trying to wrought an abundance of sap from the same source of emotion again and again. Even so, when the movie finished it’s nearly 3 hour run including previews, I found myself still willing to sit through more. It’s a testament to the performances.

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There is no doubt that Duvall is an icon of cinema. And while his performance is great, it’s just so conflicted and haphazardly layered that I could never get a complete feel for his character. Substitute another actor for Downey Jr. and the film just doesn’t mesh. It’s he who keeps the film afloat, refusing to let it drown from the tears it ardently tries to arouse. It’s a well-acted film, getting a playful performance from Vera Farmiga as Hank’s old flame Samantha, as well as Billy Bob Thornton as Dwight Dickham, the man in charge of ensuring the Judge’s jail time. Director David Dobkin really does a commendable job given the material at hand.

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A few storylines, which you will instantly know I’m referring to, are absolutely garbage and almost ruined the film for me. That’s the problem with this movie. It’s like a media spectacle court case that just goes on and on. Eventually, it just loses meaning and connection. This is no classic courtroom story. No, this is a family drama by all definitions. Want to know why this movie wins? Why it doesn’t get the death penalty? The tearjerker scenes, and there are loads of them, are all based in reality. My mother sat next to me, nervously intertwining her hands and wiping away the front line of tears as they marched forth. She’s been through those same moments. Where The Judge fails in succinctness, it succeeds, moderately, in evoking real emotions. And the verdict is…

“My father’s a lot of unpleasant things but a murderer is not one of them.”

Rating: 3 out of 5

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