The Judge: Some objections

October 18, 2014 12:02 pm | Updated May 24, 2016 01:23 pm IST

A still from the movie The Judge

A still from the movie The Judge

In one of the scenes in the beginning, Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) tells his wife to “water the f****** hydrangeas”, as he gears up for an impending divorce. While it’s easy to dismiss the line as being inconsequential, some reading up about the flower species reveals that hydrangea plants, unless well maintained, break easily. As the movie progresses, you realise that David Dobkin (director and co-writer) uses the flower reference as being symbolic of relationships. Hank’s mother is also shown to have been found dead by the hydrangeas. When Hank is forced to return from his high-flying career in Chicago to the modest Carlinville in Indiana to attend his mother’s funeral, you realise that his relationship with his family, mainly his father Joseph (Robert Duvall), is fragile. Water the hydrangeas, Hank!

His plans to return to Chicago ‘as quickly as possible’ are put on hold, when he is forced by circumstances to take on an unpleasant task – defend his righteous father in a murder trial. A courtroom drama that is also a whodunit, the film’s true story, the one you really care about, is the one in the background – an exploration of the volatile relationships between Hank, his father, and his brothers (Vincent D'Onofrio and Jeremy Strong). It is here that the most enjoyable scenes of the film lie. The refreshingly light, almost impudent treatment of tumultuous emotions is particularly heartwarming. As Hank cleans up the mess made by an accidental bowel movement caused by his embarrassed father’s terminal illness, his daughter (Emma Tremblay) wants to know what’s happening inside the bathroom. “Just cleaning up a leaking sink,” he says, as his father grins in embarrassment. In another scene, when Hank tells his daughter that he will be lonely after his divorce, she retorts, “But divorced daddies always get younger mummies.” When Hank later asks his cancer-stricken dad if he believes in god, he says, “I’m 72 with stage 4 cancer. What choice do I have?” Such little gems are all over the film.

Genre: Drama Director: David Dobkin Cast: Robert Downey, Jr., Robert Duball, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D'Onofrio Storyline: An estranged lawyer returns to his family Bottomline: Good, but with more order, could have been great

When a serious storm strikes Carlinville, you realise it’s symbolic of the brewing showdown between Hank and his father. Sure enough, they confront each other with their insecurities, thundering voices in a lightning exchange. “Where were you when I graduated? I came first in my class!” roars Hank. His father who maintains that everything he ever did was always for Hank’s good simply ends the repartee when he says, “You’re welcome.” The storm passes, and you realise that the worst between the two is over.

The Judge’s real problem is its attempt to handle too many subplots. It runs for a solid 141 minutes, and needn’t have if the story had been reined in to its core plot. Even Hollywood, it seems, can’t resist the temptation of a love angle by the side. It is one of several side-stories that necessitate tying up at the end, thus making the final scenes a bit of a drag. For a story that comes with little surprises, its length is a setback. Robert Downey, Jr. is understandably comfortable playing a character that seems like a watered down Tony Stark, with all his amorality, arrogance and acerbic retorts.

It’s a warm film no doubt, but as you walk out of the theatre, you can’t shake off the notion that The Judge could’ve been better if it didn’t try to tackle as many stories in one film. You want to get hold of David Dobkin and say, “Order! Order!”

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