Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Judge

Alternate Title:  Symbolism!!!

One sentence synopsis:  A hotshot lawyer returns to his hometown to defend his estranged father, a local judge accused of murdering an ex-defendant.

Things Havoc liked: I've always liked Robert Downey Jr, even back before he was Iron Man. I liked him in things like Air America and A Scanner Darkly and Tropic Thunder and Natural Born Killers, and one of the only negative things I can point to about the Rise of Marvel is that since the advent of this remarkable run of films, we've not gotten to see Downey in much besides the Avengers and the occasional Sherlock Holmes flick. I can't exactly complain, given the result, but when the opportunity arose to see Downey in a more "normal" film, alongside Robert Duvall and Billy Bob Thornton no less, I immediately jumped on it. For all I appreciate Marvel's output and other such blockbusters, there are times I simply want to watch good actors acting at one another, and Oscar season is as good a time as any.

And these are good actors. Robert Downey Jr. in particular is a phenomenal actor, whose role is not all that distinct from his turn in the Iron Man/Avengers films, but that's hardly a complaint. He plays Hank Palmer, an abrasive hotshot attorney from Chicago who fled his small hometown long ago and never looked back. Downey showcases here his patented sardonic wit, a little more abrasive than Tony Stark is ever allowed to be, showering contempt on those less intelligent than he is, convinced that he knows what’s best, for the simple reason that he often does. This kind of character can be hard to swallow, and easily turn into an entitled dick, but the film gets around this with another phenomenal actor, Robert Duvall, playing Hank’s father Joseph, a domineering, moralizing bastard, cantankerous and harsh to all three of his sons, particularly to the one that got away from him and left to form his own life. The dynamic between Downey and Duvall is effectively the movie, which is a fine decision, given the sparks these two are capable of.

Things Havoc disliked: *Groan*

The Judge has a good idea behind it. Duvall and Downey are two actors that could bounce off one another for days. But in order for them to do so, they would need either a script worth a damn, or license to invent their own dialogue. This film supplies them with precisely none of those things.

Oh there’s a script here, of a sort. A script laden with every family-bonding cliché known to man, but a script nonetheless, one that lets Downey and Duvall interact as little as possible in favor of the most ham-fisted symbolism I’ve seen in a while. I’m all in favor of showing rather than telling, but after a certain point of clunkyness, showing is telling, especially when you’re relying on such iron-handed devices as two people facing away from one another on a road in a wide-shot that emphasizes the distance between them, or that oldest of the pretentious old-time-writer’s tricks, a family argument to the backdrop of a raging storm, into which characters stalk angrily the better to frame their emotions. Symbolism works best when done subtly, something to analyze after the fact, a detail in lighting or tone. This has all the subtlety of an anvil dropped off a roof, crude analogies so bluntly framed as to be laughable in their attempt to preserve mystery. When someone is trying to decide whether they should take their father’s place or not, how subtle is it to have him spin his father’s desk chair around, which comes to a rest framed in soft, yellow sunlight, the seat facing the man in question, rocking back and forth invitingly?

But movies have survived thunderous symbolism before. 2011’s Real Steel was barely any more subtle than this, and it made my best-of-the-year list. Unfortunately for The Judge, Real Steel buttressed its anvilicious symbolism with a wonderful cast and a heartfelt, though derivative script. The Judge has several excellent actors as I mentioned before, but it also has Vera Farmiga (far and away the weakest link in Scorcese’s The Departed), a complete waste of a performance from Billy Bob Thornton (whose character is allowed to hint towards an interesting angle, as the prosecuting attorney who sees the opportunity to squash Downey’s frankly arrogant perversions of justice, before being dropped entirely), and worst of all, God’s gift to bad acting himself, Vincent Freaking D’Onofrio, a man who has made many movies, and was good in only two of them, one as a marine suffering a psychotic break, and one as an alien faccimile of a human being. As in all previous occasions in which I’ve had the misfortune to encounter D’Onofrio (Kill the Irishman, Escape Plan), he is more or less a waste of time here, playing Downey’s older brother, a former baseball star whose career was ruined in a car accident Downey caused. Once again, a potentially interesting idea with which nothing is ever done, though in fairness that's less his fault and more the script's. Neither he, nor their mentally challenged brother Dale (Lincoln's Jeremy Strong) has a character at all, being used instead for more goddamn symbolism, such as the home movies of the car wreck that destroyed D'Onofrio's career which Dale "accidentally" plays (why exactly are there home movies of the car wreck spliced into a movie about them as children?) during a storm, just so it can afford Duvall the opportunity to break things and rage at the heavens.

Ultimately that's the real problem. There are neither characters nor a real story in this film, there is just a concept, saccharine as it is, and nothing more, and the characters (along with everything else) exist solely to symbolize things within it. Farmiga, for instance, plays Downey's love interest, who has no character of her own, merely serving to "symbolize" the bucolic existence he has passed up. His daughter, played by the same little girl from Elysium (I remember a child performance that bad) serves to "symbolize" his innocence or some damn thing. Even the final confrontation with his father comes, for no reason other than to symbolize even more, at the pinnacle of the old man's murder trial, culminating in a schmaltzy "I love you son" series of epiphanies that I would wager most courtrooms probably would not allow on the witness stand.

But boy does it sure symbolize a lot.

Final thoughts:   The Judge is a sad waste of time, not merely for me, but for the actors who wrongly thought it was an opportunity to make a good film this Oscar season. I cannot say that director Jeremy Strong, formerly of Fred Claus, and co-writer of such masterpieces as Jack the Giant Slayer and R.I.P.D. really plays below par here, given the above resume, but this film does not elevate his name into one I will be looking for when it comes time to select something to watch. But as to this dreary, sappy, over-long piece of kludged-together gunk, my only hope is that it will soon be forgotten thanks to the flood of excellent films I have to assume are coming just around the corner. The alternative would be for the entirety of Oscar Season to be comprised of nothing but the kinds of terrible disappointments that have filled my last two weeks. And there's no way that can continue forever...


... right?

Final Score:  3/10

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