Robert Downey, Jr. and Director David Dobkin previewed their new film “The Judge,” co-starring Robert Duvall, in Chicago at the AMC Theater on Sunday, October 5th, 2014. It opens wide on October 10, 2014.
The film should earn a Best Actor nomination for Robert Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr., as the prodigal son, gives just as strong a performance (Best Supporting?). When Duvall is shown at his wife’s graveside saying, “You’ve always been my sweetheart and you always will be. I want you to know that. I’ll be back tomorrow and every day after that,” you get just a tiny taste of what will surface at Oscar-time in clips, and it resonated with the audience around me.
That is not the only powerful Oscar-worthy scene in the film. The courtroom scenes are equally strong and Duvall as a 72-year-old father with Stage IV colon cancer who must be helped in the bathroom by the son he is estranged from is equally powerful because it’s the way real life plays out.
The script, by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque has just enough of the saucy, insouciant Downey attitude to ease us into his more serious appearance here as a lawyer not unlike Matthew McConaughey in “Lincoln Lawyer.” Although filming actually was done in Massachusetts, the setting is (supposedly) Carlinville, Indiana and Downey’s character, is described by his old high school girlfriend, Sam (Vera Farmiga), this way: “You’re just a boy from Indiana who’s gonna’ do whatever he has to do to forget that.”
The main theme of the film concerns the relationship between fathers and sons, especially if the son in question was a problem child when a teenager. Not only was Downey’s middle child troublesome, he actually cost his older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) a possible pro career in baseball, causing a car accident while driving under the influence when they were teenagers. Dad has not forgiven nor forgotten. When Mom dies and Hank Palmer travels home, solo, for her funeral, the sparks between father and son fly once again.
Seven years in the making, the film is long, but the script is good. Downey gets to spout lines like, “Don’t get sued before you lose your next case” to small town attorney Dax Shepard, whom his father has hired to defend him when he is accused of a hit-and-run murder. Once more in the bosom of his family, Hank is obviously Dad’s least favorite child, while dear old dad (Downey describes him to his 7-year-old granddaughter as “just a dirty old mummy”) favors Glen (D’Onofrio), the oldest boy, and Glen has looked after younger brother Dale, who is described as “a dimwit shutterbug retard” by some locals.
The use of Dale’s home movies, which are his passion, allows us to see the boys when young, as we hear and see evidence of the growing chasm between father and son, caused by Downey’s wild antics as a young man. However, Hank cleaned up his act and graduated Number One in his Northwestern University Law Class, but his father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall) cannot get past his resentment and disappointment in his middle boy, with sentiments expressed like, “You and you alone are responsible for the consequences of your actions.”
It is true that we’ve seen films with these plots before, but it’s a good bet that you won’t see many 83-year-old actors turn in a stronger performance ever than Duvall does in this one. And, having said that, Downey’s good, too. As are the supporting cast mates, including Billy Bob Thornton as the prosecuting attorney; Dax Shepard as a hapless local lawyer; Vincent D’Onofrio as oldest brother Glen; Jeremy Strong as the retarded youngest brother Dale; Ken Howard as the judge in the murder case; Grace Zabriskie as the mother of the hit-and-run victim; Balthazar Getty as a cop, and featuring Thomas Newman’s music and Janusz Kaminski’s wonderful cinematography, complete with a waterfall outside the Flying Deer Diner, (which old girlfriend Sam now owns).
There is a scene where jury selection is taking place and Downey—the slick Chicago lawyer from Highland Park—asks the jury how many have bumper stickers on their cars (or trucks)? Hands go up. Downey then asks what their bumper stickers say, and, among the answers are: “Gun control means using both hands” and “Wife and dog missing. Reward for dog.”
With each response, lawyer Hank gives a thumbs up or a thumbs down sign to his second-in-command (Dax Shepard), a lawyer who throws up before every court appearance. When Shepard’s character asks what sort of juror they should be looking for, Downey says, “People who can be persuaded to swallow their tongues. Anyone who has seen a Sasquatch.”
Lines like, “Everybody’s Atticus Finch until there’s a dead hooker in the hot tub” suit Downey’s snarky wit from his comic book turns as “Ironman,” but, as Downey said this night in his opening remarks, “Every 20 years or so I try to make a great movie. This is like free therapy. That’s all I’m going to say.”
Everyone knows, from Downey’s previous fast-talking image onscreen, that he can deliver snarky lines with the best of them, but Duvall gets some great lines, too. Here’s one: “Imagine a far-away place where people value your opinion. Then go there.”
It is the bull-headed, stubborn intelligent back-and-forth of these two old adversaries as they try to craft a defense for the older man who, admittedly, cannot remember all the events from the night of the accident. Judge Joseph Palmer has been on the bench for 42 years; he is worried about his legacy, while his outspoken lawyer son says, “Nobody gives a rat’s ass about your legacy.” There is the clash of small-town versus big city values, as well as the old personal wounds, whose scabs are, one-by-one, ripped open again.
At one point, a detractor says of Downey’s Hank, “You’re a shined-up wooden nickel.” Another says to him, “You really aren’t a pleasant person.” Still, Downey manages to make Henry “Hank” Palmer likable, as we see how hard he has tried to redeem himself in his father’s eyes, and how little rewarded his adult efforts have been. I was reminded of “The Great Santini” while watching Duvall in action.
Detractors (i.e., some other critics) have ripped the film for its length (it is long); for its “everyman” set of issues that appeal to all; for the lack of significant female leads and the almost superfluous old-girlfriend-back-home plot thread. One even criticized one of the scenes I found strongest, which is the elderly Duvall, weakening every day, having to accept help from his middle son in a dire moment in the bathroom. I’ve cared for three parental units as they faced their final days. It was Stage IV colon cancer that killed my father, although the situation faced in this film had more in common with my mother, who died of old age, but had more than one emergency trip to the hospital after passing out from extremely brittle diabetes. I’ve found her unconscious and had to scrub feces from the carpet after a coma sent her readings into levels so high they couldn’t even be measured in the hospital (800+). I’ve helped a proud dying man stagger to the bathroom. This is real life. Whoever wrote that it was treacly and sentimental is very possibly a young person who thinks they will live forever and never grow frail. (Good luck with that!)
An interesting side note: Tommy Lee Jones and Jack Nicholson were both considered for Duvall’s part, while the director this night said he had Robert Downey, Jr. in mind for son Hank when he first began developing the script 7 years ago. [Director David Dobkin (“Wedding Crashers”) helped develop the story, but did not script it. From there, said the Director, “We got a good script and took it to Robert and Susan (Downey’s wife).”
I enjoyed the film immensely and think Duvall and Downey, together onscreen, are a dynamite duo.