When I was eight years old, my favorite TV show was a late ’90s law-procedural comedy called “Ally McBeal.” It was during the 2000 season that Robert Downey Jr. earned a special place in my heart as the snarky yet lovable, hyper-verbal attorney Larry Paul. He even sang a beautiful rendition of Joni Mitchel’s “River” on the show, which appeared on my favorite holiday album, “Ally McBeal: A Very Ally Christmas.” As this childhood crush continued into adulthood, I made a point to see everything RDJ has ever done — with the exception of the “Iron Man” trilogy (I’m more of a Batman girl). This is why I found myself in the theater to see his new movie, “The Judge,” last week.
It is clear from trailers of “The Judge” that this new movie is meant as another rung on the RDJ comeback ladder. (In case you were still a kid, he had a drug problem throughout the ’90s and early 2000s.) This becomes even more obvious when considering the film is the first release from the production company he started with his wife Susan in 2010. It is glaringly, insanely obvious that this movie was created as an RDJ vehicle when considering that director David Dobkin said in an interview Oct. 6, “The movie was written from the very beginning with Downey in mind, so the character was very much him from the beginning.” Essentially, the film is RDJ star propaganda, a written-for, produced-by, 2-hour-and-20-minute Downeypalooza created specifically to show off his acting ability, his penchant for a dry one-liner and his reformed-bad boy charisma. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
In a suit with the tie loosened just-so, hair neatly parted only to come undone when the dramatic timing is right, Downey Jr. plays Henry, a metropolitan lawyer with a fancy car and a wife with “the ass of a high school volleyball player.” Things go awry for Henry when his mother passes away and he must revisit his hometown — and his estranged family — to attend her funeral. He has almost extricated himself from this Pleasantville-in-amber when his father, the respected town judge played by the legendary Robert Duvall, is arrested on murder charges. Now the hot city lawyer must defend the tough, old-school judge despite father-son tensions, the stubbornness of old age and the pressures of small town life.
If that was the only plotline running through the film, it might have garnered the feeling of gravitas the director was going for. “I always kind of hearkened it to that this story was made like a great American novel,” Dobkin said. “I wanted to feel like this movie was the adaptation of something that was literary.” In a way, with the classic father-son struggle and the fearless performance from Duvall, the movie does feel like a classic in the tradition of Sidney Lumet, one of Dobkin’s inspirations.
The movie itself is downright beautiful as well. The contrasts in lighting in the dark, enclosed courtrooms, the production design of the small town life and the muted color palette of the entire film add an old-fashioned feel to the film, like a sepia lens. Dobkin shot “The Judge” entirely on film rather than digitally in order to add a tactile element that paid homage to his inspiration. He and cinematographer Januzs Kaminski certainly pull this off.
RDJ is at his RDJ-est, Duvall is a powerhouse, the picture was shot beautifully and the story had literary aspirations. Despite having all these things going for it, “The Judge” has one major setback: the writing. There are just too many plots going on in this movie. The father-son drama between Henry and the Judge is complex enough, with years of family history clogging up their communication system and the trauma of losing a loved one straining their relationship. This relationship is intrinsically complex because family relationships are comprised of many layers that become twisted by history and memory.
Dobkin’s own relationship with his parents and his experience with loss informed the story. “No matter what your relationship is with your family … there’s always parts of us that, no matter how successful you are getting through life and not stepping on each other’s toes and being respectful, that we all share regrets,” he said. “We all share the experience of lost time, we all share the experience of leaving home, and returning and having to reevaluate who we are.” This complexity drives the best parts of the movie and the chemistry between Duvall and Downey Jr. is mesmerizing.
Note that I use “complex” here and not “complicated.” Complication occurs when outside forces work to change things up and make them difficult. I suspect that with this film the screenwriters acted to complicate Dobkin’s story, who is the director and creator, but not the screenwriter. The dramatic tone of the film doesn’t exactly mesh with Downey Jr.’s usual shtick: witty intellectual with a rebel-may-care attitude and a dark past (there’s a reason he’s at his best when playing a lawyer).
This makes the screenplay feel like too many ideas pasted together. On top of the Judge-Henry plot, there is a subplot involving Henry’s two brothers and caring for the disabled; there is a subplot about where Henry’s daughter will go after his impending divorce; and there is a subplot involving Henry’s high school sweetheart. The last one is probably the worst offense, because studios so often tack on romantic subplots to play to a wider audience. This one, despite Vera Farmiga being one of the best actors working, feels exactly like an afterthought. Henry has so many balls in the air in the story that only one or two of them ever come back down during the overly long film. It makes the movie complicated, not complex like it wanted to be.
Unfortunately, the beautiful family saga does not play well with the wackier elements of the film. The movie isn’t completely successful at what it tries to be, which is Oscar-bait with gravitas and humor. But it really succeeds as what it was meant to be: a Robert Downey Jr. showpiece, which I greatly appreciate.