Sunday, January 25, 2015

Video review: "The Judge"

One of my favorite pieces of obscure movie dialogue is from “Casablanca.” An old German married couple is practicing their halting English before leaving for America, and the husband asks her the time. “Liebchen, what watch?” “Ten watch.” “Such much?”

I thought of this while watching “The Judge,” a dramatic star vehicle for Robert Downey Jr., which he also produced. It has a solid premise and terrific performances by Downey and Robert Duvall (who deservedly earned an Oscar nomination for his work). But the movie is so overloaded with secondary characters and needless subplots the main dynamic is left weakened.

This is an ambitious film that suffers from a case of “such much.”

Downey plays Hank Palmer, a big-city attorney summoned back to his tiny backward Indiana hometown after the death of his mother. He and his dad, Joseph (Duvall), a prominent local judge, have never seen eye-to-eye, and it would seem that after the unpleasantness of the funeral they are both fully prepared to never speak again.

Then the judge is accused of deliberately running down the town miscreant – whom he sent to prison long ago – and Hank must defend him in court against a high-roller prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton) brought in special to bring the elder Palmer down. The latter half or so of the movie is dominated by the trial, with all three actors spouting crackling dialogue and chewing the scenery. Good stuff.

But then there’s “the other.” An old flame of Hank’s (Vera Farmiga) now runs the local bar and seems to have an open window to his innermost psyche. His brothers are a cantankerous ex-pro baseball prospect and a feeble-minded boy/man who makes 8mm movies. Hank’s estranged daughter shows up for a visit. And a young town chick is looking for a hookup. And the prosecutor’s got a personal grudge against the Palmers. And it goes on.

Director David Dobkin and screenwriter Nick Schenk keep piling on the tertiary material, until the weight of it threatens to topple the delicate balance of volatile personalities that are the core of the film’s ample appeal.

“The Judge” is still worth watching, if only to see these veteran actors ply their craft. But when it comes to storytelling, sometimes having “such much” results in subtraction by addition.

Bonus features are merely adequate. The DVD has only a single featurette, “Getting Deep With Dax Shepard” (who has a small, funny part as an inept local attorney). Upgrade to the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack and you add a commentary track by Dobkin (so disappointing not to have Downey along for the ride!) plus deleted scenes with their own commentary.



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