The only interesting aspect of David Dobkin’s The Judge is that there are people in the world still making movies like The Judge. It’s the most cynical, shameless kind of Oscar bait, existing in a time when no one wins awards with this kind of bush-league, tear-jerking, faux-sentimental nonsense. And judging by the flaccid box office, it doesn’t look like this kind of movie makes financial sense either.
Among the film’s blatant offenses are daddy issues, alcoholism, divorce, dark family tragedies, cancer and a mentally handicapped character. It’s Oscar bait bingo that has no qualms about being unabashedly manipulative and obvious in its aims. I suppose that honesty is admirable, but the least The Judge could do is extend the common courtesy of giving a damn about its audience. Perhaps that’s too much to expect from Dobkin, here with his first foray — after years of stuff like The Change-Up (2011) and Fred Claus (2007) — into “serious” movies. Unfortunately, Dobkin’s idea of serious is grainy, gauzy, soft-focus photography and lots of swelling piano chords papier-mâchéd over the film, with a fat dollop of mawkish familial drama on top.
The Judge revolves around Hank (Robert Downey Jr., playing yet another fast-talking wiseass), a high-priced Chicago defense attorney with little conscience and slim ties to the rest of his family who live in rural Indiana. But the sudden death of Hank’s mother sends him reluctantly home to her funeral — and into the home of his estranged father and small town judge Joseph (Robert Duvall). But — after a stressful, awkward few days — before Hank can leave for good, his father is involved in a hit-and-run and is charged with murder. Reluctantly — and presumably out of a sense of duty — Hank decides to defend his father.
The film, from this point, becomes part courtroom drama, part familycentric melodrama. Neither part is very strong, and the two combine to stuff the film into a running time that’s at least 20 minutes too long. There’s just too much plot and not enough focus, as threads and subplots are brought up and eventually forgotten. The courtroom angle suffers from being unfocused, and while it does go in a direction that I wasn’t suspecting (the outcome, while not earth shattering, is a bit surprising considering the type of movie The Judge is) there’s not much of a payoff, while the buildup to the climax of the case eventually fizzles out. The family aspects of the script are even worse, since so much of these people’s entanglements feel put-on and artificial. This is a gussied up soap opera — and not a particularly fun one — where none of the characters have any depth. Hank is solely ruled by his relationship with his father, a relationship that never feels as real as it needs to be thanks both to the actors and the unfocused script. This is a film in desperate need of an emotional response, and it mucks it up at every turn with poor chemistry and a total inability to get out of its own way. In the end, The Judge just feels pointless. Rated R for language, including some sexual references.