Movie Review: The Judge (2014)- A Hackneyed Narrative Bloated with Distraction and Forced Sentimentality is Slightly Lifted from its Credible Cast

the-judge-robert-downey-jr-robert-duvall-2-600x400Even the most biblically ignorant of sorts would immediately recognize the parable of the Prodigal Son because even though it maintains a relatable core message of redemption for a lost soul it’s become a rather hackneyed narrative for family centered dramas for years in the Hollywood crowd-pleasing machine. What makes the idea of familial rejuvenation such a pleasing construct for commonplace movie watchers is the fact that family is one of those foundational weights that give people, and often the characters that represent them, a sense of purpose, pride, and love in a world that seems to deny us all of it. This is the main emotionally manipulative concept at the heart of David Dobkin’s The Judge and while that might be considered enough the bloated script refuses to stop at that simplistically redeemable approach as it fills the two and a half hour running time with an overly sentimental father and son redemption tale but also adds the layers of a television quality predictable crime procedural and an incredibly unrefined family reveals all melodrama. But what can you expect from a drama written by a rather untested writing team and the director of such riveting character works as Fred Claus and The Change-Up. It’s not that The Judge is unwatchable—mostly because a competent cast filled with the likes of Robert Duvall, Vera Fermiga, and Vincent D’Onofrio lift material they’re attached to—but in its selective moments it’s hard not to see a specious and leaden fable that desperately seeks the affirmation from the manipulative emotion centers of its desired audience as much as Robert Downey Jr.’s Hank Palmer desperately seeks the affirmation of his patriarchal domestic despot Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall). The Judge is one of those bloated dramas that’s filled to the brim with clichéd sentiment, unnecessary plot details, and an odd blend of conflicting genres that sadly amounts to nothing in the end giving us a hollow experience despite some impressive dramatic flair between two arguable masters of their craft with Duvall being a master of acting and Downey being a master of charisma. Because of an unfocused narrative with nonsensical plot deviations, an unconvincing dramatic grasp of its moral ponderings, and an exhausted use of cheap theatrics The Judge ultimately is a passable family dysfunction drama despite its obtuse crowd-pleaser browbeating.

It’s unsurprising that the script for The Judge took such a desperate slant towards crowd-pleasing histrionics because “Adult” character dramas are treated with such a callous attitude of calculated superficiality in Hollywood that it’s difficult to find relevant, challenging films. New writers are expected to follow the formulaic standard of obvious emotional manipulation and that happens in spades throughout The Judge that seeks the familiar over the unconventional highlighting its dramatic predictability in the sins of the father facet while diluting the impact of every misguided notion that all centers around big-city lawyer Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.). Hank reluctantly returns to his overly picturesque and almost imaginary version of America’s heartland under the tragic circumstances of his mother’s death that sees him reunited with his mostly estranged family. While things are somewhat pleasant on the surface with his two brothers Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong), the former being a high school baseball star now settling into Midwest disappointment and the latter being a mentally disabled sweet human being who is wise in his naivety, there’s palpable tension between Hank and his clearly disappointed local Judge and home patriarch Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall). Of course this all then turns into an unsuspecting (or speaking without sarcasm, completely unsurprising) twist where Mr. Big Shot Lawyer now has to reign in his controlling father as a client when Joseph is accused of murdering a recently released ex-convict that he put away. This all culminates into a strange mixture of varying genres and competing cinematic tones where a relatively intriguing yet annoyingly predictable father son redemption tale is distracted by a mundane city slicker finding his country roots comedy and a laughably first draft version of a court room crime drama. Basically The Judge not only demonstrates the faulty strains of formulaic structure but it also reminds us that attempting too much can deteriorate the impact of your intentions because any film that tries to balance a sins of the father reflection, city slicker return to country origins humility, a rekindling of a high school romance, a defeated lawyer taking on a grudge, and even more issues relating to mental disability, brotherly forgiveness, and odd comedy relating to incest then you know there’s too many attorneys on the prosecutions bench.

Robert Downey Jr. Vera Farmiga

How does one balance all of these vastly complex layers into one coherent piece of drama? The simple answer is that it can’t really be done without sacrificing the individual credibility of each varying storyline element inevitably reducing the entire original premise into a hollow character exercise that doesn’t seem the least bit fulfilling. Also having the director of Shanghai Nights and Wedding Crashers doesn’t seem to be the wisest choice in attempting to reign in all of these competing story elements that also never really amount to anything at all except unnecessarily added details in a relatively unengaging drama that goes back and forth from country bumpkin comedy and ultra-serious father son melodrama. David Dobkin earnestly wants to make a dramatic piece of forced catharsis into something meaningful for audiences but he mistakes that merely having written dramatic elements actually equates a sympathetic connection from the audience when it clearly does not. The Judge moves and feels like a standard family centered drama that we’ve been exposed to for decades probably due to the script’s clichéd sentimentality, Dobkin’s unfamiliar exposure to this overly milked terrain, and the utterly polished dramatic look from Spielberg regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan) as well as the conventional sequence cuts of a feel good family drama from Mark Livolsi (We Bought a Zoo, Saving Mr. Banks). Merely capturing an actor brooding in emotional pensiveness with the equally obnoxious complimentary score of Thomas Newman doesn’t immediately sway our dramatic reflexes because audiences should expect something more from it all such as context, purpose, and connection. All of the technical and narrative elements come off as completely superficial in their desire to ignite subliminal yearnings of nostalgia driven sentiments instead of taking the challenging route of building characters that are complex in thought and motivation rather than in their circumstances around them. And yet The Judge doesn’t drift into unwatchable territory mostly thanks to a cast that has the ability to make something out of nothing which is what continuously happens through David Dobkin’s mundane family drama.

If there’s any reason to seek out The Judge it might be why most people will seek it out in the first place which is the promised dialogue repartee between charmer extraordinaire Robert Downey Jr. and master of the acting craft Robert Duvall. On the surface both Downey and Duvall’s characters become nothing more than superficial archetypes, or rather familiar constructs of characters we’ve seen before as the complexity of their situation has far more layers than their revealed motivations. However, they are both exceptional on the screen in whatever role they take on and it lifts the exhausted material of The Judge into an entertaining domain that would please audiences had the runtime been halved from 141 minutes to about 70. At their best moments Downey and Duvall are reminiscent of the tumultuous relationship between James Dean and Raymond Massey in East of Eden but that strength doesn’t last nor transcend the material for very long. In fact, it’s their collaborative efforts that are the silver linings throughout The Judge rather than their individual efforts because Downey falters in balancing being an unlikable rogue while also making all the right decisions he’s expected to make to win over the audience’s sympathies. It’s calculated heart-warming, melodramatic fluff such as this that seems to clearly show the restraints of performance because the actors have traded a chance for performance risk for safety in material. Though it’s undeniable that Downey is indeed a charming presence on the screen and maintains it despite the limitations of the material as his character transitions from egoist lawyer in a showdown with the equally competent presence of Billy Bob Thornton to charming Lothario in a rekindling of young romance with Vera Farmiga to humble brother seeking the not so subtle forgiveness of his brother with Vincent D’Onofrio. The Judge might never say anything of importance about the relationships it exposes or about the issues it shallowly dramatizes but luckily it doesn’t also include horrid performances that make it unwatchable.


Cheapened theatrics amid a superficially constructed script never really amount to a substantial cinematic experience and The Judge pioneers the worst of these callously manufactured dramatic elements. David Dobkin’s earnest but misguided attempt at making a poignant father son redemption tale results in a type-casted and plodding narrative that sees two credible actors occasionally at their familiar best but never allows the weighted material to be anything other than mediocre. It might be the script’s constant need for plot deviations into unnecessary details that don’t add to the core narrative or characters or the filmmaking’s glossy predictability, but The Judge never confidently tackles its own weighty moral and familial meditations nor does it simply entertain for the majority of its running time as it slogs in presentation and wears the viewer down in melodramatic histrionics. Predictable narratives and second chance fables might provide a basic satisfaction to most basic audiences but it never leaves you with fulfillment but rather a fleeting and unhealthy notion that second chances are easy. If you aren’t familiar with the tale of the Prodigal Son it involves two sons and focuses on one who takes his early inheritance, wastes it on extravagant living, and eventually returns to the surprising open arms of his father. However, if the home you left is the hive of repetitive Hollywoodized storytelling guided by emotionally manipulative drones then perhaps you shouldn’t ever return and instead explore the extravagance of rich character, wealthy narratives, and diverse styles of which The Judge has none of these qualities.

Grade: C-

2 Responses to “Movie Review: The Judge (2014)- A Hackneyed Narrative Bloated with Distraction and Forced Sentimentality is Slightly Lifted from its Credible Cast”
  1. merletemple says:

    You and I must have seen a different movie. This was great storytelling, a movie with heart. Every movie with Duvall is worth watching just for his performance alone. A C-? Not on your life! I give it an A!

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