Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Judge (2014)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Actor in a Supporting Role - Robert Duvall

Robert Downey Jr. Photo and Robert Duvall Photo in The Judge Movie 2014
Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Portraying difficult, overbearing fathers is right in Robert Duvall's wheelhouse, just as playing cocky and charming jerks with underlying hearts of gold is what Robert Downey, Jr. was born to do.  When you partner two of the best actors of their respective generations in roles perfectly suited for them with strong chemistry between the two performers, you have the recipe for a winning film.  The most important remaining ingredient is a strong script; unfortunately, this ingredient is - while not missing - certainly not at the level needed to match the talents of those bringing it to life.

Many have described The Judge as Oscar bait, and it's not hard to see why.  Both leads had the type of showy roles that tend to attract the notice of the Academy, with Duvall in a particularly strong position to gain a nomination.  The Academy loves nominating aging legends in the Supporting Actor category, and Duvall playing a dying older man accused of a crime certainly fits the bill.  But his performance is much more than a mere attempt to win his second Academy Award (he previously won for 1983's Tender Mercies).  Duvall is known for an actor especially adept at the loud, showy moments, and he has a few of these on display here.  But what often fails to get noticed is Duvall's absolute genius for holding back, for showing the briefest beginning of a big moment before repressing it.  We are almost certain we know what he is thinking, but we are never sure.  Duvall has never abandoned this tendency, and it is what has allowed him to continue to turn in some of his best work at an age at which most actors are trading in on their personas.

The Judge tries to be several kinds of film, and succeeds perhaps 80% in each of these efforts.  It has elements of a strong family drama weighed down by too many superfluous plot threads (adultery, a developmental disorder), a murder mystery that succeeds in ambiguity but failed in making me care about what actually happened, a sympathetic and unflinching look at aging that abandons the subject just as it hits its bravest moment, and a story of a fish-out-of-water in one's hometown whose fish acclimates all too quickly to create much drama.  There's a strong storyline in there somewhere deep down, but there are too many digressions and false starts to sustain any momentum in the telling.

But there is a benefit to all of these extraneous themes, and that is the multiple showcases it gives to a cast of gifted actors.  Aside from the headliners, Vera Farmiga adds some verve to the usually uninspiring role of the first love who stayed behind, Vincent D'Onofrio gives his best non-television performance in years, Jeremy Strong wisely underplays a role that is unnecessary but saved through Strong's performance, and Billy Bob Thornton - the new king of cameos - is one of the only actors who could be credibly cast as a lawyer capable of going toe-to-toe with Downey.

Adult melodramas like The Judge were common in the 1990s, but have all but disappeared in recent years as studios have marshaled their resources more and more toward potential tent-pole films.  The best of these films were almost always the result of a singular filmmaker's vision.  The Judge demonstrates all of the indicators of a story with multiple visions told by committee with no single person at the helm, and indeed the script was handed off to multiple screenwriters before director David Dobkin took the final pass.  Ultimately, the film falls short due to a lack of cohesiveness, and though this is partly covered by strong performances all around, it results in a film that feels bloated and confused.

On a related note, I am quite proud of myself for avoiding any review cliches related to "judgment."

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