The director David Dobkin has made two jolly comedies with Owen Wilson - Shanghai Knights and The Wedding Crashers - and one film in which Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds accidentally swap bodies after weeing into the same magic fountain.
He has not, before now, made a drama. Actually, in some sense, he still hasn’t. The Judge fancies itself a grand courtroom thriller, the tale of revenge and betrayal, class tension and chronic illness, civic integrity versus personal pride. But it’s a total tonal gumbo, which sometimes treats its topics with kid gloves, at others chucks them in the air and juggles. It’s a film to absolutely scramble your taste radar. Watching it is like snacking in someone else’s fridge with your eyes shut.
Robert Downey Jr plays Hank, a hotshot big-city lawyer with flexible morals and no interest in pro bono. A couple of early scenes show him making mincemeat in the courtroom, smacking down peers, practically cackling - an alpha male easily as ruthless and ambitious as mid-period Paul Robinson.
But such posturing masks private pain: Hank’s wife is divorcing him, his moppet daughter misses him and he has no contact with his dad (Robert Duvall), a judge in smalltown Indiana. Yet it is to pop’s frosty embrace that he must return after his mum dies abruptly. And there he must stay after Duvall’s character is accused of a hit-and-run the night of her funeral. Can Hank bring himself to defend the old man, given their mysterious history?
The Judge is a timeless film, in that it could have been made at almost any point over the past 80 years: rote plot, functional support, well-signalled twists. It’s a two-seater star vehicle offering little legroom for other passengers. The leads go full-throttle. Duvall is as gummily charismatic as ever, Downey good casting - nothing if not a convincing tool, self-conscious smirk a neat fit for the part. Yet his vanity trips him up. When Hank puts on his old Metallica T-shirt and freewheels nostalgically downhill on his racer, we’re meant to be amused - get off the bike, granddad! But these are body-appropriate togs; the joke won’t work if you’ve just allowed your leading man to show off his washboard torso.
The rest of the cast aren’t so indulged. Jeremy Strong plays a cookie-cutter savant brother with a handy hobby (splicing together old Super 8s); Vera Farmiga is shot through seven layers of Vaseline as Hank’s old flame. The first entrance of Billy Bob Thornton as Dwight Dickham, the prosecution, gets hope springing. But the script sells him short. Dickham’s only real hint of devilishness is immaculate facial hair and ownership of a super-snazzy folding silver water beaker, the kind of thing David Blaine might take on a camping trip.
After two hours of switchblade swerves between sweet and sour, larks and drama, you start feeling queasy. The bonding over diarrhoea. The earnest gasps from the public gallery. The lol-tastic incest. The hard-boiled nuggets (“Everyone wants Atticus Finch til there’s a dead hooker and a hot tub”) floating about on a sea of treacle. Dobkin is one moment too on-the-money, the next jabbing away, miles off.
What should be his defence? Diminished capacity? That’s too harsh, for there are mitigating factors. Sadly there’s no denying the charge: first-degree cheese, with intent.
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