The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Judge

The Judge certainly is an ambitious movie. Actually, it's many ambitious movies. This is a prestige film, a dysfunctional family drama, a courtroom thriller, a comedy, and a romance all balled together. Quite frankly, I'm surprised it doesn't try to be a science-fiction adventure and a musical, too. The Judge is also a potentially great movie that's bogged down by a desire to include so many things all at once. The end result is passably entertaining, but not much more.

Robert Downey, Jr. plays hotshot Chicago defense attorney Hank Palmer. He's the kind of cocky guy who intentionally urinates on a prosecutor's leg in the men's room, just because he can. Hank returns to his tiny hometown after the death of his mother. There, he is reunited with his estranged father, Joseph (Robert Duvall), the longtime town judge, known for being no-nonsense. Their reunion is not smooth, and Hank quickly tries to high-tail it back to the big city, only to be forced to return by some shocking news. The judge is accused of having committed murder. His damaged car is covered in the blood of a hit-and-run victim. Upon learning that Judge Palmer has hired an inexperienced attorney (Dax Shepard) to represent him, Hank insists on taking the case. The prosecutor is the none-too-subtly named Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), a tough-as-nails lawyer intent on putting the elderly Palmer behind bars.

Robert Downey, Jr. has developed a very distinct screen persona. He brings tons of talent, plus a uniquely quirky quality to everything he does. The actor puts unexpectedly sly twists on lines of dialogue and makes left-of-center choices in the way he approaches even the simplest of scenes. It's all part of his undeniable magic. You never know what to expect, although you know it won't be predictable or boring. The Judge is almost literally the cinematic embodiment of Downey, Jr. While that may sound like a good thing, it's actually the movie's biggest problem. In mashing so many disparate elements together in an attempt to continually surprise the audience, it becomes more cluttered than compelling. Abrupt tonal shifts are frequent. One moment tries to be thrilling, the next profound, the one after that comical. The comedy elements are the most jarring, as the film finds laughs in some strange subjects, incest being just one of them.

A romantic subplot between Hank and a former girlfriend (played by Vera Farmiga) is also out of place. Nothing against the actress, who's wonderful in everything she does, but all scenes involving her character could have been completely cut out with no detriment to the story. In fact, it would have improved the pace of this overlong movie.

Some of the material in The Judge works pretty well. Downey, Jr. and Duvall are excellent, jointly creating a strained father/son dynamic that is credible and never maudlin. By far, the best moments in the film are the ones between them, as these two stubborn individuals try to find some common ground. Billy Bob Thornton has comparatively little to do, yet brings a sense of purpose that makes Dickham a powerful adversary. And even though it's shamelessly manipulative, The Judge does generally pull off the courtroom scenes. You can't take them too seriously the judge hearing Palmer's case allows a lot of things that would be off limits in a real courtroom but they have the kind of dramatic momentum that many of us love in legal thrillers.

In the end, a pared down approach would have been better. The romance stops the movie cold in its tracks, the humor is often out of sync with everything else, and a few other extraneous elements add nothing. Director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) should have excised all of that and just focused on the dynamics between father and son as their relationship is tested by a serious legal charge. When it sticks to the task at hand, The Judge is pretty entertaining. When it tosses in extraneous factors and mismatched tones, things start to fall apart.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Judge is rated R for language including some sexual references. The running time is 2 hours and 21 minutes.

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