Review: In ‘The Judge,’ Robert Downey Jr. And Robert Duvall Star In A Cut-Rate ‘Doc Hollywood’

Senior Editor
10.10.14 51 Comments

The Judge, from director David Dobkin, hits theaters today. Here is my original review from a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. 

‘My Cousin Vinny,’ Without The Good Parts

While other TIFF movies seem to come from a magical place called Film Festival Land, where every protagonist is a dyslexic circus dwarf with a heart of gold, and mental health can be cured with an earnest monologue and a slo-mo montage, The Judge feels like it arrived via time machine sent from 1993. Robert Downey Jr. plays a dickish big city lawyering Joe Slick, who has to return to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana to defend his estranged father, the morally upright town judge played by Robert Duvall, after the latter runs the town shithead over with his car. Imagine My Cousin Vinny meets Doc Hollywood. That’s pretty much the whole movie. In fact, you could probably just call it “Lawyer Hollywood.” And despite a plot that can be adequately explained in two words, the movie runs an excruciating two hours and twenty minutes, long enough for Robert Downey Jr. to communicate “my character has gone through an important transformation!” at least four separate times.

I respect the fact that David Dobkin tried to make a Hollywood slick, light dramedy aimed at adults, I really do. I’d love it if they still made movies like My Cousin Vinny — broad and hokey, sure, but carefully crafted to be a crowdpleaser, and with a heart. The Judge tries to replicate the Vinny recipe without a crucial ingredient: laughter. I will gladly sit through a movie that’s slightly hokey. I will forgive the soap opera-y, on-the-nose dialogue. I’ll pretend that a protagonist meeting his soul mate before he’s 12 years old is something that actually happens to people in real life. I’ll laugh at secondary characters who are obvious cartoons designed for that purpose. I will happily do all those things, IF the movie is funny and/or entertaining. The Judge asks you to make all kinds of concessions, for tired conventions and well-worn narrative devices, and all it offers in return is maudlin melodrama and a series of half-assed affirmations. That is, unless you count the visual of Robert Duvall sh*tting himself in the shower toward the positives column. A scene which, for my money, needed to have either more fecal closeups or louder splattering sound effects to really count as a “crowd pleaser.”

Instead, The Judge is just really long. By the third act, the audience was either looking at our phones, or covering our faces in embarrassment as poor Vera Farmiga was forced to give the pukingest of on-a-dime dramatic reversals delivered via tearful monolog set to tinkling pianos in front of a green screen waterfall. Barf me, Amadeus.

It’s hard to overstate how out of place this movie felt at a film festival. Playing The Judge at TIFF feels like the MOMA debuting a Thomas Kinkade drawing of dogs playing poker. If it were a better movie, “not typical festival fare” might be a compliment. After all the intensely morose, conventionally unconventional, overwrought art school wanks you see at any film festival, the audience is dying for a conventional crowdpleaser. Sadly, the Dogs Playing Poker painting The Judge is trying to sell you isn’t even particularly well drawn.

One of the hallmarks of a bad movie is that they’re set in this unrecognizable alternate universe. They take place in this world that sort of looks like the regular world, but things don’t work the way the regular world works, and the movie never communicate the rules of whatever movie universe it does exist in. Which is how you end up with lines like Robert Duvall saying, “Think of how age ruins the legacy of great men – Ronald Reagan was president for eight years, and what do people talk about? Jelly beans, naps, and Alzheimer’s.”

Wait, what? When and where was this line written? Clearly not by someone who has seen the last 10 years of Republican conventions, which are basically competitive Ronald Reagan fan-fiction (“Remember when Reagan cleared the fire swamps in ’84 and then chopped down a birch tree with his penis? TO REAGAN!”). No one remembers Ronald F*cking Reagan? And this is said by a character who lives in Indiana? Reagan probably has stadiums named after him in Indiana. Maybe this is some alternate, meta-universe Indiana where people only bring up Reagan in reference to Jelly Beans? Because if that’s what the f*ck this is, I seen it done better, that’s all I’m sayin’.

The only thing The Judge is especially good at is feeling anachronistic. You really do feel like you’ve died and gone to the early nineties. It has it all, the soapbox dialog, the schmaltzy, overbearing musical score, the Bush I-era glorification of the small town, the tertiary characters styled like Scooby Doo villains… It’s impressive, the bad guy looks like he just got back from scaring a white lady in a Brinks Home Security commercial. The Judge is essentially an uncomedic Tom Shadyac movie with more green screen waterfalls.

It’s unapologetic corn, poorly done. What else is there to say? I guess there were a couple good things? Robert Downey Jr. read lines good. Robert Duvall growled. Vincent D’Onofrio was there.

Don’t see this. Seriously.

GRADE: D+

Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.

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