Every actor working in any film wants the same things.
1. They want to keep making films.
2. They want critical and…
3. commercial success.
4. And they also want to be introduced as an Oscar winner.
A handful of actors have achieved this kind of success, more have some parts of it, but most are not lucky to have checks next to each item. This is why every successful actor will eventually make a film intended to create some Oscar buzz. No matter how big the paycheck for their current work, they still want an Oscar. And these blatant plays for a little gold statue frequently create works that are so different, so at odds from their body of work they simply seem out of place and quickly fade away from memory. They become anomalies in otherwise successful careers.
Will Smith made "The Pursuit of Happyness" and earned an Oscar nod, but it was a longshot. He then made “Seven Pounds” which was quickly forgotten. Will Ferrell made "Everything Must Go", a small independent based on a short story by Raymond Carver and featuring some good acting, but quickly exited the multiplex. Now, he is making "Zoolander 2". Jim Carrey has had more success mixing the highly commercial with the more intimate, more dramatic, usually better smaller films. For every "Dumb and Dumber To", there is a "Truman Show". For every "Ace Ventura", there is "The Majestic". For every "Mr. Popper's Penguins" there is "Kick Ass 2". So it seems natural, if unnecessary, for Robert Downey Jr. to follow a series of highly successful films, which now reportedly earn him north of $40 million per, with a project that will give him a showcase for more dramatic work. Downey has earned the love of millions for his work as Tony Stark in the "Iron Man" and "Avengers" films; even the "Sherlock Holmes" films are successful enough to warrant a third entry. But he still doesn't have a little gold statue. "The Judge" is a bid to check that off his to-do list.
Of course, there are dozens of films made every year to simply garner Oscar buzz and awards. As much as I hate to admit it, filmmaking is more commerce than art; many smaller, riskier films are able to be made because they are positioned to become Oscar bait. But films that are so blatant in their quest for Oscar gold are usually pretty noticeable and have to work harder to make the audience become assimilated into the story.
"The Judge" is Downey's Oscar bait.
Because "The Judge" is a big-budget studio film, it seems more hollow, more slick than it should. From the moment Downey appears onscreen as Hank Palmer, a high-powered lawyer living in Chicago with his estranged wife (Sarah Lancaster, TV's "Chuck") and their too-cute daughter, Lauren (Emma Tremblay), you realize Downey is playing Hank as Downey. The rapid speech pattern, the facial tics, the arrogance, everything that worked so well for Tony Stark, are there as Hank Palmer. Downey's character learns that his mother has passed away and has to travel back home to attend the funeral. Returning to small town Carling, Downey's character immediately gets into fights with his father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Academy Award winner Robert Duvall). His two brothers, Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio, TV's "Law & Order: Criminal Intent", "Full Metal Jacket"), a former high school baseball star, and Dale (Jeremy Strong, "Lincoln", "Zero Dark Thirty"), a mentally challenged adult who tries to film everything with a camera, still live close at hand and under the Judge’s thumb. Just as he is about to board the return flight home, he learns his father has been arrested for killing a man the night before, hitting him with their ancient Cadillac. The victim was involved in an old case presided over by the Judge. Downey's character returns home and begins to plot his father's defense. But his dad wants Downey's character to work with a local lawyer, C. P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard), a local lawyer who is less experienced. And both lawyers must face a special prosecutor, Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton). While in town, Downey's character becomes reacquainted with Samantha (Vera Farmiga), an old sweetheart who now owns a diner and a restaurant in town, and her daughter, Carla (Leighton Meester, TV’s “Gilmore Girls”).
Directed by David Dobkin ("Shanghai Knights", "Wedding Crashers") and written by Nick Schenk ("Gran Torino") and Bill Dubuque, "The Judge" is a film that is okay to watch, but it just seems false and hollow. It never really makes you feel like you are watching real people in a real-life situation and that is the key for any drama to work. It seems more appropriate as something you might see on television.
The narrative takes too many liberties to resemble something real. It’s way too convenient that Judge Palmer is arrested for killing a man on the night of his wife's funeral. And the murder victim is related to a former case he once presided over, sending the murder victim to prison. And because these two events happened on the same day, Downey's character is still in town and reluctantly takes over his father’s defense, despite his father's contempt and dislike. All of this manipulation serves to keep Downey's character in the small town he quickly left, giving him time to appreciate the town’s charms.
Throughout, Downey's character learns a little about the Judge and his health condition. Because he is living in the same house as his father, Downey’s character becomes the care giver and there are a few moments designed to give us a look at the Judge and his son bonding. But these moments have completely the wrong tone. Rather than experience a deeply emotional bonding moment, they almost seem ready to laugh about it, both Downey and the Judge. It simply doesn’t work as the intended slapstick.
This is indicative of most of the narrative. Nothing achieves what it is meant to. Downey's character has a few moments with each brother, trying to form a new bond, reliving parts of their childhood. But Downey’s character has stayed away from the family for years, so these moments seem forced.
The best part of the film involves Downey's character and his former lover, Samantha. They share some more light hearted moments and seem to have some fun. It is also nice to see Samantha (Farmiga) stand up for herself. Initially, Downey is dismissive of her desire to stay in this small town, but she quickly explains why she loves this town and reveals that she now owns the diner they are sitting in, that she has worked in for decades, and also the restaurant across the river. This revelation seems to shock Downey and his character develops a new found appreciation for his childhood sweetheart. Once you get beyond the shallowness of this, it seems a little cute.
But even this storyline takes a strange, unlikable turn that seems designed for a laugh but is simply creepy.
When the trial starts, it is clear Dobkin is going for a kind of Southern Gothic drama, something similar to the best courtroom dramas - both Duvall and Thornton have sort-of Southern accents and I guess small-town Indiana is meant to be an approximation of Hollywood-style Southern virtues. But each visit to the courtroom begins with a shot of C. P. (Shepard) throwing up outside the courthouse, an act designed to ellicit laughs. If you are trying to create an intense, emotional drama, make it intense and emotional, don’t dilute it with laughs.
The only thing that works for Downey in this character is his expected arrogance. A big city lawyer, someone who is as successful as Downey's character is, would probably be arrogant and it takes a while for him to tone this down once he returns to the small town.
The narrative also dictates he needs to reconcile with his dad, the Judge. This doesn't happen immediately and doesn't seem to happen completely, which is a good thing. Someone with that much animosity and resentment would not simply see the cause of both and fly into a hug. Downey and Duvall both portray this well, keeping each other at arm's-length, unable to look at each other or embrace. Duvall is very good as the stalwart Judge; set in his ways not about to soften up very much, he has always and will always treat each of his sons with a firm hand and doesn't lighten up much. This seems completely natural for someone of his stature and upbringing.
Vincent D'Onofrio plays the oldest brother who doesn't get a fair shake from life. His dreams aren't met and he stays in the small town, raising a family and living under the oppressive hand of his father. Dale, the mentally challenged son, is played by Jeremy Strong and there are a lot of shots of him staring at his brothers as they fight with each other or their father.
Billy Bob Thornton, so memorable in the recent "Fargo" television series, does his best to try and appear menacing and threatening, but this is a role that could be played by just about anyone. Dwight does have a few moments of quiet introspection which Thornton adds a little bit of interest to.
It was inevitable that Downey would make a film as a bid for Oscar gold. He will probably make others. But why make such a slick, big-budget attempt? In all liklihood, this film will be forgotten when the Oscar voters begin to make their selections. If it does garner any Oscar nominations, the independent films in the same categories will receive more favor, voters tend to support smaller, independent films because Oscars usually generate box office for them, so making a big-budget attempt detracts from the chances as well.
Much like the narrative of "The Judge", all of the reasons this film was made seem at odds as well.