Friday, October 10, 2014

The Judge: Contempt of court

The Judge (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for profanity and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

Some stories, despite an engaging premise and a solid opening act, eventually work themselves into an unfortunate corner.

When Hank (Robert Downey Jr., left) reluctantly agrees to help defend his father (Robert
Duvall, center) against a murder charge, he first must undo the damage unintentionally
caused by inattentive local attorney C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard).
Sadly, that’s the case with The Judge, a well-cast and tightly plotted legal thriller that gets considerable mileage from the tempestuous, high-octane pairing of Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr., as a severely estranged father and son.

Tightly plotted, that is, until the film wears out its welcome with an increasingly contrived and deeply unsatisfying third act ... by which point director David Dobkin’s 141-minute drama has become at least half an hour too long.

Dobkin certainly draws excellent performances from his stars and their supporting players: no problem there. But his writing experience hails from broad slapstick (Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus) and popcorn action flicks (Jack the Giant Slayer, R.I.P.D.), which hardly makes him ready for narrative territory inhabited far better by the likes of John Grisham, Michael Connelly and Scott Turow.

Dobkin shares the writing chores here with scripters Nick Schenk (Gran Torino) and Bill Dubuque, and the result eventually feels overcooked: a high-concept proposal likely sold via a tantalizing 25-word pitch that lacked a solid punch line. Hollywood is littered with the forgotten corpses of such projects: promising at first glance, but ultimately disappointing.

And I’m fairly certain most viewers will be quite unhappy with the way this one ends.

Downey’s Hank Palmer is a slick, big-city defense attorney who makes no apologies for employing every possible legal trick to get his wealthy but clearly guilty clients off the hook. (“They’re the only ones who can afford me.”) Although Hank is troubled by neither scruples nor morals, his surface glad-handing masks an arrogant jerk with a miserable home life shared with a hotsy-totsy younger wife (Sarah Lancaster, in a fleeting and thankless part) poised to divorce him, thus turning their adorable little girl — Emma Tremblay, as Lauren — into a reluctant bargaining chip.

Then, suddenly, a crisis: the death of Hank’s mother, which brings him back to his bucolic (and frankly gorgeous) home town of tiny Carlinville, Ind. (actually Shelburne Falls, Mass.). He abandoned this scene years earlier, no longer able to withstand the belittling treatment from his father, Joseph (Duvall), who happens to be the community’s long-presiding judge.

The reunion is hardly cheerful, despite the obvious bond Hank feels for older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong), both of whom remained in Carlinville.

Hank and his father immediately fall into their old, long-established pattern of mutual contempt and rapacious verbal sniping, much to the chagrin of everybody else. It’s a well-established fact that people, no matter how old they get, often revert to a powerless adolescent dynamic when in the presence of their parents, particularly if the setting is a childhood home.

And if the relationship is long-frayed to begin with, the situation is far worse: The unresolved issues that have been held at bay, in the shelter of the well-established lives we’ve built elsewhere, pop right back to the surface.

Hank lingers just long enough for his presence to be deemed appropriate. But his subsequent attempt to flee — literally — is interrupted by a fresh catastrophe: a hit-and-run on a quiet country road outside Carlinville, which left a dead man ... and all evidence points to Judge Joseph Palmer having been behind the wheel. Worse yet, the judge is known to have loathed the victim.

Hank can’t believe it, despite the mounting proof; his personal feelings aside, he knows his father as a strict believer in law and order. And yet there’s something odd about Joseph’s behavior, leading Hank to fear that his long-sober father may have gone off the wagon. If so, could the traffic fatality have occurred during a blackout?

Efforts to minimize the incident are dashed with the arrival of seasoned prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), a lawyer with his own deep-seated grudge against Hank, thanks to a prior legal clash. The feral Dickham is eager to use this case as a means for revenge, matching his “honest lawyering skills” against Hank’s tricky tendencies, which the visiting prosecutor feels confident won’t work with an upright jury of solid, conservative Middle Americans.

That’s assuming, of course, that Hank will even be allowed to defend his father. Joseph wants nothing to do with his middle son, and instead has hired local antique dealer-turned-lawyer C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard). Poor Kennedy, good-natured and naïve, has no idea what he’s about to get from Dickham.

Add Vera Farmiga as Samantha — the girl Hank left behind years earlier, who now runs the town’s favorite restaurant/bar — and the result is a tempestuous stew of piquant clashes and bubbling squabbles.

It’s all quite entertaining, well through the second act, thanks to Dobkin’s careful blend of family strife and unexpected humor. This isn’t the sort of breathtakingly vicious, take-no-prisoners warfare we got with last year’s big-screen adaptation of Tracy Lett’s August: Osage County; this film’s verbal jabs, although often savage, are scripted more to function as clever zingers.

We certainly wince at some of Judge Palmer’s spiteful behavior, in great part because Duvall and Downey put considerable passion into their performances. But we never get a sense that theirs is a hopelessly doomed relationship; salvation seems possible, if highly improbable.

And, no question, this film’s best moments come when Hank and Joseph tear into each other: Duvall unapologetically blunt and contemptuous, Downey forever embittered and frustrated by the failure of Hank’s repeated efforts to break through his father’s mean-spirited walls. Insanity may be defined as repeatedly trying the same thing while expecting different results, but that’s the nature of fractured family relationships: We simply can’t help ourselves.

The dexterity of Downey’s craft comes from the little touches he inserts throughout: the exasperated hesitations, the eyebrow-lifting double takes, the expressions of briefly stunned surprise that melt into stubborn retorts. He truly commands the screen.

But not entirely. Duvall, malicious half-smile always at the ready, gives as good as he gets.

So does the always captivating Thornton, who deftly establishes Dickham’s capable “villain” when he sits in court the first time, and opens a collapsible drinking cup with an authoritative snap. Thornton never needs to raise his voice; Dickham owns the room because he is the alpha predator.

Strong is genuinely touching as youngest brother Dale, whose fragile demeanor results from mild developmental disabilities; he keeps the tempestuous world at bay by filming everything with his ubiquitous Super 8 camera. It’s easier for Dale to experience the world second-hand, via movies that he can edit to his own satisfaction. Despite this, he adores both of his older brothers, and some of the film’s most touching scenes occur quietly, when (for example) Dale lays a comforting hand on Hank’s shoulder.

D’Onofrio’s Glen veers in the other direction: more brusque and aggrieved than usual, in part because he knows, with his mother’s passing, that responsibility for Dale and their father likely will fall in his lap. It’s inevitable, since Hank is never around ... which, in turn, fuels their respective angst.

Then, too, Glen and Hank also have additional reason for their mutual wariness: one of those tantalizing family secrets parceled out via little hints, until finally revealed.

Farmiga’s Samantha is deliciously sultry, but she also represents this story’s voice of reason: the one person able to see through Hank’s professional bluster, and the one person he’ll allow to do so. Farmiga continues to impress, imbuing her roles with suggestions of far more complexity than likely existed on the scripted page.


The further we get into the core plotline, the more it begins to collapse under its own weight. The courtroom theatrics become absurd. Sidebar issues, as well, get left behind: most notably the impact this script’s implied dénouement will have on Hank’s beloved young daughter. Aside from grappling with an upsetting finale, we’re left with too many unanswered questions.

Ironically, I can’t help feeling the film would have been vastly improved with the complete removal of the judge’s involvement in the hit-and-run incident, although that would have necessitated a different reason for Hank to hang around. There’s plenty of dramatic and entertaining sizzle, without the murder-trial catalyst that becomes increasingly intrusive.

Ah, well. There’s still much to recommend the initial 90 minutes or so.

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