As of the writing of this column (Saturday, October 11, after having seen The Judge at our local theater), the Rotten Tomatoes rating of this film was at 47%. In contrast, the percentage of viewers who liked the film was listed as 77%. That kind of discrepancy is remarkable, and my first thought is, why such a difference between critics’ responses to the film and the general moviegoers’ reactions? It’s easy to imagine each side’s answer to the other: Critics might say, and do say, that the movie is a simple crowd-pleaser, telling a clichéd story in a way that makes viewers have a good cry and end up feeling good about the characters, themselves, and the whole world by feeding them sentimental drivel without serious exploration of characters or issues; or that director David Dobkin, best known for relatively mindless comedies like The Wedding Crashers and Shanghai Knights, has not been able to transcend that broad model in trying to make his first truly serious film. General moviegoers, on the other hand, might counter by saying that smug movie critics put too little stock in the emotional punch of a film, the profound effect that certain archetypal situations (in this case, the “prodigal son” story) have on audiences, or the valuable function of drama (whether live or recorded) to provide catharsis for its viewers at all levels. The critics want sophisticated art. The audience wants entertainment. Shakespeare demonstrated that a script can provide both, but unfortunately, everybody is not Shakespeare. And while it may be true (as H.L. Mencken said) that “nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public,” there is still a wide gap between The Judge and Duck Dynasty or The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
The story of the film is this: hot-shot Chicago defense attorney Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.), who has made his reputation and his fortune defending sleazy rich clients (“Innocent people can’t afford me,” he tells his rival attorney at one point) is suddenly called away from his current case—as well as his failing marriage—to return to his small hometown of Carlinville, Indiana, for the funeral of his mother. After twenty years’ absence, he reconnects with his older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), a one-time athlete whose dreams of major league baseball were ended after a car accident decades earlier, forcing him to stay on in Carlinville and run a tire shop; and his younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong), an 8 MM film buff who is clearly somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum but whose old films serve to give us some sense of Hank’s childhood in Carlinville. Most importantly, Hank must endure his long-estranged father, the severe, autocratic and demanding Judge Palmer, played with remarkable insight and deftness by the 83-year-old Robert Duvall.
Hank, whose plan had been to slip into town, attend the funeral, and rush back to Chicago as quickly as possible, has to make new plans when the Judge is arrested for murder, having apparently run down a bicyclist in his Cadillac. The victim, it turns out, is a recent parolee whom the Judge had sentenced to prison for murder years before, and, to make matters worse, the Judge claims not to remember anything about the night of the accident. Hank feels compelled to defend his father, despite their mutual antipathy, and although the Judge at first tries to employ a local attorney, scorning Hank’s unsavory methods (“I want a decent attorney—and by decent, I mean honest” he tells Hank), eventually he accepts Hank’s offer to represent him, especially since the state has brought in its toughest prosecutor, Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) to conduct the murder case.
Predictably, the drama revolves around the relationship of Downey and Duvall’s characters, exploring the events that caused their estrangement, so that the murder case is a side issue of somewhat less importance than the familial ones. In the course of the film’s events, we learn the secrets of the Judge’s past, of Hank’s past, of Glen’s past. And revelations about the Judge’s health are not particularly surprising in this kind of film either. Predictably, as well, Hank reconnects with his high school sweetheart Samantha (Vera Farmiga), now the owner of a local bar and eatery, and we learn how their high-school romance fits into Hank’s family history. And on top of all that, we learn that Dickham has his own axe to grind. I won’t reveal the ultimate verdict in the murder case, but I probably don’t have to reveal whether or not Hank and his father are reconciled in the end. But it may not be much of a surprise because, predictably, in a “crowd-pleaser,” things tend to work out well, even if they do so in a melodramatic fashion.
But leaving it at that does not do justice to the movie. Duvall is compelling and remarkable and sympathetic as the domineering Judge whose physical and mental powers are slipping from him. Downey demonstrates some of the boundless talent he displayed in his early roles, like Chaplin, though the glib, fast-talking, arrogant, amoral Hank of the movie’s opening scenes is no great stretch from Tony Stark of the Ironman series. Still, it’s a Tony Stark with an actual heart beneath his iron armor, and it is indeed a joy to see Downey in a role that gives him something more to do that merely dispense wisecracks and act cynical. His relationship with his daughter, played by the talented young Emma Tremblay, is believable and provides an interesting contrast of parent-child connections with his scenes with his own father.
There are some problems with the script, of course. For one thing, it’s too long. There is not enough here to sustain a 141 minute film. Some of the plot elements seem gratuitous and lead nowhere: The relationship between Hank and Samantha’s daughter, for example, is pointless and it takes attention away from the central concerns of the film. Hank’s relationship with his wife is undeveloped and we completely forget about it as the film goes on (and on, and on). Strong is given very little to do with the part of Dale, who seems to be nothing more than a generalized “mentally challenged” person without any truly distinguishing characteristics, except to present a problem that will need to be dealt with if the Judge is convicted and sent to prison. Also a bit annoying is the clichéd depiction of the small town life as idyllic compared with the evils of the big city—the cinematography makes Carlinville look like a Norman Rockwell painting (as my wife called it), but it’s actually pretty difficult to imagine why anyone would actually want to live there.
The worst part of the film occurs in the last fifteen minutes or so, when a climactic scene in court turns into a confessional of all kinds of family secrets from the witness stand, which is not only unrealistic in itself, but ties up the difficulties of the main characters’ relationships into a neat little box that makes everybody understand and, ultimately, leads to mutual forgiveness and blah, blah, blah. Prior to that scene, I was prepared to give the film a much higher rating, because it seemed to avoid the trap of simple solutions to very difficult relational problems, and to resist the easy sentimental reconciliation that so seldom actually takes place in real life. It’s the opting for the easy answer, not the clichés or sentiment, that bothers me most about this film. There are, I freely admit, some very nice parts of this movie, and I really wanted to like it, but it doesn’t all come together in a real way in the end, and I’m afraid that has to be put on the director. Sorry judge, I find you guilty of oversimplification. I’m going to have to go with two Jacqueline Susanns on this one.