The Judge (2014) – Review

I’ll admit it: from 12 Angry Men to The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, I’m a sucker for courtroom dramas. I’ve even been known to enjoy Judge Judy for long bed-ridden periods. So when a film like The Judge comes along, with the title itself promising much dramatic debate and adjudication, I feel immediately predisposed to like it – and that’s without even considering how terrific the cast is. Only the thing is, what I like so much about the film, what makes it work, isn’t actually the courtroom scenes, but the underlying themes surrounding them. While masquerading as a conservative judicial drama, David Dobkin’s film is really about family and paternal bonds; a father and son reconnecting through adversity. That’s where the film earns its weight.

Interestingly, Dobkin comes from a heavily comedic background, with films like Wedding Crashers, Shanghai Knights and The Change-Up inking his CV. While he perhaps seems an odd choice given the subject matter, there’s no denying what’s in front of us: he’s embraced the challenge and come out the other side with a really solid piece of work. Whether Dobkin can be praised for it or not, his film certainly benefits from towering performances from both leads, which tie together even the things that don’t work. Duvall captivates for every second on-screen, while Downey Jr. remains one of the most entertaining and watchable actors around, channeling Zodiac’s Paul Avery for the serious lawyer bits while reverting to his usual irreverent, Tony Stark self for the rest. The contrast and chemistry between the two works terrifically, and allows the light, almost zany, comedy to flourish among the darker, solemn ideas that the film clings to so dearly.

Though the film certainly doesn’t avoid the pitfalls of courtroom clichés; Downey Jr. tells Billy Bob Thorton’s prosecutor the age-old line, “My father’s a lot of things but a murderer isn’t one of them” after the pair have sized each other up in court like Rocky and Apollo, and the soundtrack is always overly keen to let us know exactly how to feel each step of the way; maybe not to the point of feeling manipulated, but it’s definitely noticeable. Yet that only serves as lining for what is otherwise strong storytelling with engaging characters and ideas. A bit of familiarity is okay when everything surrounding it is so strong. In other words, The Judge isn’t perfect, but it’s heart is absolutely in the right place to make for an engrossing, and kind of sweet, two and a bit hours.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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