Sometimes people should stick to what they do well. Sure, it’s only natural to want to prove you’re a pony with more than one trick but the cruel truth is some people were put on earth for one purpose and one only. Director David Dobkin was born to give us 2005’s immortal Wedding Crashers and comedies like it. The Marx Brothers never did Shakespeare.
Dobkin was definitely not put on this planet to helm meandering dysfunctional family/courtroom dramas. Exhibit A: The Judge-a movie that manages to run nearly two and a half hours, feature some of the most gifted actors alive and somehow fail to offer a trope, motif or character type we haven’t seen a hundred times before in pictures a hundred times less predictable.
You want predictable? How about Robert Downey Jr. as Hank Palmer, a wiseass Chicago lawyer with an attitude? His specialty is twisting the law to keep rich creeps he knows are guilty from seeing the inside of a cell. It’s the sort of glib master of the universe role the actor at this point could play in his sleep.
How about Robert Duvall reduced to recycling codger mannerisms? Actors don’t get more masterful than Duvall but, when you get to be 83, Hollywood pretty much has one role for you: the crotchety SOB with a warm gooey center waiting to be discovered in act three. His small town Judge Palmer is a walking, taking supercut of the characters he’s played in Get Low, The Road, Jayne Mansfield’s Car and Crazy Heart.
Hank’s forced to return to his Indiana home town for his mother’s funeral. Father and son have been estranged for years (long story) so, naturally, when blood is found on the grill of the old man’s Cadillac, he’s arrested for murder and can’t remember whether he did it or not (even longer story), guess who winds up defending and maybe, just maybe reconciling with him. Eugene O’Neill this isn’t.
The courtroom proceedings are as convoluted as the domestic drama is clueless. Hank’s older brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) dreamed of a career pitching in the majors until his hand was crippled in a car crash (Hank was driving-really long story) while his younger brother (Jeremy Strong) is among the most offensive screen creations I’ve come across in years.
Someone really should’ve informed Dobkin, along with fellow writers Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, that cognitive disability is no longer acceptable comic fodder in the 21st century. Dale Palmer clearly suffers from a form of autism the writers don’t take the trouble to define. Instead they make a running joke out of his carrying the family’s old Super 8 camera everywhere and shoving it in everyone’s faces.
Dobkin’s claimed in interviews to have been inspired by Rain Man but The Judge has about as much in common with that film as it does with Inherit the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird or any of the other timeless courtroom dramas of American cinema.
Also squandered: Billy Bob Thornton as the unnecessarily sinister prosecuting attorney, Vera Farmiga as Hank’s high school squeeze, Dax Shepard as a hick lawyer and Ken Howard, who plays the judge presiding over the case. You know you’re bored when you catch yourself musing over the evolution of his toupees.
Here’s my close: Two things a movie should never waste-the talent of its cast and the time of its audience. The Judge is guilty on both counts. Dobkins should be sentenced to the community service he’d perform simply by ditching the serious artist shtick and going back into the funny business.