“The Judge”: In Defense of Sentiment
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
I like a little schmaltz in my movies every so often. So regardless of whether director David Dobkin’s “The Judge” is a courtroom drama posing as a family melodrama or vice versa, I forgive its sentimentality in the name of emotionally satisfying entertainment. Even those hard-noses in disagreement with my dispensation must concur that the fine synergy between lead actors Robert Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr. nearly compensates for the liberal doses of treacle.
I’m also a sucker for this kind of plot, an American standby celebrating our mobility and the possibility of attaining great personal success. In this case it’s Mr. Downey as Hank Palmer, the boy from provincial Carlinville, Indiana, who becomes a rich defense lawyer in Chicago. He has the perfect manse, a darling daughter, a beautiful wife and not just a Ferrari in his driveway, but a classic Ferrari. Unfortunately, as the film opens he has to drive it to the airport so that he may fly to Carlinville and attend his mom’s funeral. He hasn’t been back in years. He has his reasons.
For starters, he and dad, the locally esteemed Justice Joseph Palmer, played by Mr. Duvall, don’t get along…not one lick. Other baggage includes a dark secret concerning brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), who could have been a great baseball player, and some unfinished business with Vera Farmiga as Samantha, the small-town girl he left behind. Oh, but don’t worry about Sam. She has the big shot pretty well sized up, screaming in a telling moment of their reunion: “You’re just a boy from Indiana who’s going to do whatever he has to do to forget that.”
Hence, the stage is rather conventionally set for the prodigal son’s grand attempt at redemption. Shortly after Hank’s arrival, the challenge is tragically put in motion when the good judge is accused of first degree murder…running down Mark Blackwell (Mark Kiely), the despicable town ne’er-do-well who over the years has given him plenty of motive. Naturally, Dad doesn’t want sonny boy to defend him. But when you get a load of the local talent (Dax Shepard) he goes with first, we understand why he finally acquiesces. He also has his wise, hidden rationale.
Now, if you think this plot takes its cue from the horse that knows its way back to the barn, well, you’re initially right. There is a homey comfort in its sensibilities and maxims. However, director Dobkin, who co-wrote the story with Nick Schenk, is unwavering in his desire to present the tale’s traditional values, unaltered by a cleverness or cynicism that might have gained the work a more original feel and better reviews. That isn’t to say it isn’t realistic. To the contrary, the surprises he applies to his familiar perspective all work in the cause of honest storytelling.
Most poignant among “The Judge’s” intelligently derived disclosures, the contrast in lawyering embraced by father and son offers pungent appraisals about the wiles, vagaries and ideals of American jurisprudence. There’s plenty to munch on as both the defense and its client must deal with the personal nooks and crannies relative to the case. Upping the legal ante, the state has imported Billy Bob Thornton’s Dwight Dickham, a prosecutorial shark from Gary, to win a conviction. A lean, cold-blooded Billy Bob suggests we don’t want to have coffee with this guy.
Mr. Downey is terrific freed of his “Ironman” encasement, etching a full-bodied, dual-natured characterization that goes a long way to making him real. Outside the courtroom Hank Palmer is a glib, charmingly sarcastic and wittily intelligent presence. But at the bench, his protective senses are heightened, unleashing the furies of righteous indignation, certainty and the power of persuasion. He is the Babe Ruth, the Cadillac and the Patek Philippe of barristerial elegance.
In stellar contrast, Mr. Duvall draws on his charismatic subtlety to fashion the juror under fire. Watching him seamlessly layer his venerated Judge Joseph Palmer, it occurs that this journeyman actor has jaded us. Considering the high bar of thespic accomplishment he has set for himself, it’s possible we just might take this superb performance for granted. Hopefully, those folks who dole out the acting awards will not.
OK, so it’s all a bit soap opera-ish. But then what would families be without a crazy uncle, a weird cousin no one talks to and at least one sibling whose exact parentage is under question? It’s no fair limiting domestic eccentricity to The Royals. All of which is why this film will split viewers down the middle: those who refuse to suffer any excess gushiness at all, and those, like yours truly, who welcome it if it works to enhance the drama. Thus, in the specific case of “The Judge,” I must plead guilty to gullibility in the first degree.
“The Judge,” rated R, is a Warner Bros. release directed by David Dobkin and stars Robert Downey, Jr., Robert Duvall and Vera Farmiga. Running time: 141 minutes