The Judge (2014)

(Video on Demand, February 2015)  High-profile dramas have become a bit of an extinct species at the cineplex in this age of multi-screen spectacles, which makes The Judge’s shortcomings a bit more frustrating than usual.  It does have the advantage of a good solid cast, well-used in appropriate roles: Robert Downey, Jr. is in his element as a fast-talking lawyer forced to go back to his small-town origins in order to take care of his father, who’s most appropriately played by Robert Duvall.  Other supporting players include Vera Farmiga (radiant), Vincent D’Onofrio (dour) and Dax Shepard (hilariously clumsy).  Legal proceedings supplements a nostalgic return to small-town family, alongside romantic entanglements and portentous end-of-life drama.  If you get the sense that this is all familiar material juggled in a fairly conventional way, then you’d be right: The Judge is straight-up Hollywood classic filmmaking from the time where CGI monsters hadn’t conquered all available multiplex screens.  (Although the film does contain a lengthy CGI pull-out shot of the protagonist driving down a road that feels intensely out-of-place.)  It feels familiar and disappointing at the same time, the kind of movie everyone loves to mock when talking about Oscar-bait films and audience-friendly mainstream dramas.  Still, The Judge works more often than it doesn’t, and seeing Downey, Jr. in a non-superhero role has become, at this time, a bit of a novelty.  There’s a lot to quibble with the script’s pacing, odd choices of sub-plots, drawn-out endings (two or three of them, depending on how you count) and often-lazy approach to characterization for the secondary players.  Still, The Judge does work well at evoking a quasi-nostalgic sense of place, at creating showcase roles for the two lead Roberts and at providing undemanding drama for two hours.  It could have been worse, although it’s true that it could have been much better.

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