Some directors leap nimbly between genres, changing up their styles as appropriate to the story they're telling. These are the Steven Soderberghs, the Danny Boyles, the early-vintage Rob Reiners of the cinema world, and we owe them a debt of gratitude for enriching all those genres with their presence. Other directors, like David Dobkin of Wedding Crashers, The Change-Up, and Fred Claus, are good (or in this case, passable) at one thing, and even when they attempt to branch out - as Dobkin has with The Judge - they inevitably clothesline themselves with their own cinematic past.
The Judge sees Robert Downey Jr.’s slimy, successful Chicago defense lawyer Hank Palmer returning after a twenty-year absence to his quaint hometown for his mother’s funeral. His father, community pillar Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), is none too pleased to see him, but they’re forced to play along when Judge Joseph becomes a suspect for the murder of one of his former convictions, and Hank offers to defend him.
On paper, that sounds like a dour movie - and that doesn’t even take into account the other issues it touches on, like divorce or cancer. But The Judge is an odd film that sits uneasily between serious family drama, legal thriller, and - believe it or not - broad and even gross-out comedy.
This is a film that opens with a pee joke, contains the spoken insult “semen breath,” and features a running gag of Dax Shepard vomiting outside a courtroom. When the inevitable feces scene arrives - but seriously and candidly depicts a man on chemotherapy losing control of his body* - it’s tonal whiplash. In fact, about eighty percent of the movie would become a raucous comedy with only minor re-edits or music changes. In the film’s current form, it feels awkward laughing at the many, many jokes amidst the dead-silent naturalistic sound design, slower dramatic editing rhythms, and cold cinematography. The comedy wouldn’t be so jarring were it not for the fact that the movie is shot, performed, and marketed like a prestige drama. If I’m pigeon-holing there, it’s only because the filmmakers did it first. Dobkin tried to go serious with this one, but he inadvertently turned out one of the easiest-ever films from which to edit an ironic comedy trailer.
How does the drama side fare? Worse. There’s no subtlety in The Judge. Every emotional beat is hammered home with gentle piano music; every dramatic line a description of how the characters feel. There's even an unmotivated storm that happens to hit just as emotions are running highest. Tonal imbalance aside, the film is incredibly cliched, ticking off all the family-drama boxes until Hank and Judge Joseph end up hashing out their father-son conflict in the middle of a murder trial, to the solemnly approving nods of all present. It’s a daddy-issues movie, which does deliver the requisite male pathos, but those isolated moments still feel uncomfortable next to coarse, winking jokes about incest.
Downey Jr, the only actor whose character undergoes change (if an obvious one), plays his now-trademark sensitive dickhead exactly as you'd expect. Same goes for Robert Duvall, clearly the Oscar bid in the film, lit as he is with god-rays in his introduction. He nails his performance, but he’s played this curmudgeonly character before. Vera Farmiga has little to do as the perfect girlfriend away from whom Hank ran, and Vincent D’Onofrio continues to prove he’s underutilised by the industry at large as Hank’s bitter older brother.
Stranger is Billy Bob Thornton as the state prosecutor, written and played as a two-dimensional, borderline moustache-twirling villain. He has this thing with a collapsible cup that’s supposed to be idiosyncratically menacing but ends up idiosyncratically hilarious. Strangest of all, though, is Adam Sandler lookalike Jeremy Strong (who was in Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty, but is best remembered as the “cheese and crackers” guy from The Happening) playing a character Sandler would play if the movie gunned for its laughs. He’s the possibly autistic, definitely socially inept younger brother to Downey Jr and D’Onofrio, who views the world through an old 8mm film camera to shield himself from reality. It's a strange character to include, as he doesn’t really affect the story in any way other than making other characters look like dicks.
I have to give The Judge credit for trying to tie things together thematically. There’s a motif of twenty-year absences and separations throughout it, each examining a different way people can change over that time. Hank and Judge Joseph wrestle with twenty years of respect issues; Hank and his ex-girlfriend muse over twenty years of what might have been; the dead ex-con emerges from prison bearing twenty years of hatred for Judge Joseph. That’s interesting, though it’s muddied somewhat by also wanting to be a film about legacy. A desire to preserve his legacy drives Duvall’s character, but the turns it pushes him to aren’t worthy of the courtroom-wide gasps they elicit in the film’s legal scenes. In the end, we're left wondering what exactly was achieved by all the manoeuvring and legal positioning.
The Judge is never boring, but it’s never particularly stimulating either. It tries to have several flavours of cake and eat them all, but ultimately, you can only eat so much cake. By the time the movie finally cuts to black off of Downey Jr’s big, beautiful eyes, it’s clear that it’s a movie stuck in the middle - between genres, between siblings, and between good and bad. It’ll be great to watch while ironing your clothes one day.
* The scene in question, dealing as it does with colon cancer, may or may not depict bloody stool. My useless eyes have trouble distinguishing shades of reddy brown, so I couldn’t tell the difference. Come to think of it, that’s probably an issue for my own future health as well.