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Rob Edelman: Judging THE JUDGE

THE JUDGE is the new Robert Downey, Jr.-Robert Duvall domestic drama that recently opened the Toronto Film Festival and now is arriving in movie theaters. As for the film, it is what one might describe as “perfectly okay.” Downey plays a hotshot Chicago lawyer while Duvall is his father, a petulant small-town Indiana judge. At its core, the film explores a corrosive father-son relationship and both actors play off of each other nicely. Along the way, the film also underlines the importance of coming to terms with your past, your roots, your family history-- and these are worthy themes.

However, THE JUDGE is the kind of film whose makers seems to be telegraphing to critics and viewers: Here is a film about relationships. Here is a film about feelings. Here is a film that is so refreshing solely because it is far-removed from the mindlessly insipid special effects-laden assembly line “product” that Hollywood regularly churns out these days. Lastly, here is Robert Downey, Jr. separating himself from his IRON MAN-SHERLOCK HOLMES franchises. Kudos to him for playing a character who is not the equivalent of Sherlock Holmes-as-action hero. For this reason alone, according to this hype, discerning audiences should embrace THE JUDGE.

But is THE JUDGE really an outstanding film? I somehow think not. It may be entertaining to watch Downey and Duvall sparring onscreen and Vera Farmiga, cast as Downey’s childhood girlfriend, is an actor who is eminently appealing. Ultimately, like THE FIFTH ESTATE, the Julian Assangebiopic starring Benedict Cumberbatch that opened last year’s festival and bombed with critics and at the box office, THE JUDGE is more an Oscar pretender than contender.

I will add, however, that at one point in THE JUDGE the name “Atticus Finch” is dropped. “Atticus Finch,” of course, is the character played by Gregory Peck in the classic, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, which dates from way back in 1962. This also is the film that features Robert Duvall in the small but pivotal role of Boo Radley. It was his screen debut. I attended THE JUDGE’s press conference simply to ask Downey and Duvall if this reference was in the original script or if it was ad-libbed, and if it was meant to pay homage to Duvall. Downey explained that it was in the script. I don’t know if I believe him, but it hardly matters.

Finally, a word about THE DROP, a smoldering Brooklyn-set thriller featuring Tom Hardy, an intense, vastly talented actor whose star on the international film scene is deservedly rising, and James Gandolfini in his final big screen appearance. THE DROP was scripted by Dennis Lehane, based on his short story. Lehane is a wonderful writer and three of his novels-- MYSTIC RIVER, GONE BABY GONE, and SHUTTER ISLAND-- had previously been adapted for the screen.

At the Toronto press conference for THE DROP, Lehane paid homage to Gandolfini by observing that the actor “could turn street speech into a symphony.” He also compared film noir to Shakespeare. All noir is, according to Lehane, is working class tragedy. In noir, the villains are from the working class. In Shakespeare, they are royalty. In Shakespeare, the villains are toppled from thrones. In noir, they fall from curbs. They fall into gutters.

I must make an effort to read more of Dennis Lehane’s writing!

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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