Why am I writing this review? Am I just flummoxed that, against all odds, The Judge is as bad as I heard it was, in some ways even worse? Is it just easier to trash this than parse what I did and didn’t like about The Final Girls and Logan? In some ways, absolutely. Films that fail with such utter confidence in their storytelling, as anachronistic in its relationship with creating and executing a narrative as it is, are completely captivating in a way that middle-of-the-road movies with more successful if uneven execution can’t be. The ways they fail can even be more stand-out than flat-out, across-the-board achievements. All the disparate elements of The Judge, working so poorly without any self-awareness of its awfulness, is a lot easier in some to dig and rip into than films that unify as an internally syncopated artistic achievement. Personally, I often get tongue tied differentiating between elements of perfect films except that they’re perfect, whereas all the ways a bad movie fails often clash within itself and are painfully noticeable. For sure, no sound or image or line or performance in The Judge works so wonderfully or grabs my imagination the way that The Immigrant, or Selma, or American Sniper, or Edge of Tomorrow do. Even typing their names reminded me of all the remarkable, almost miraculous achievements each of those films pull off, not just in how they use filmmaking techniques but how their achievements represent peak realization or reinvention of biopic conventions, of infusing melodramatic devices throughout generations of storytelling styles, of combining such a hodgepodge of filmic influences with video game conceits that manages to stay light on its feet and remarkably complex. The individual ways a film can be good or bad are, of course, various, and The Judge is no exception. The nicest thing about it I can say is that it seems like a gangbusters stage-to-screen adaptation from seventy years ago, with Lionel Barrymore in the Robert Duvall role and Cary Grant in the Robert Downey Jr. role. It’s existence seems more excusable that way, but how this ever got made today is, in some ways, as fascinating as the actual, glorious achievements of the other 2014 films I mentioned earlier. Maybe if I write about The Judge I’ll be free of the space it takes up in my head. Maybe the only way to clear it out is to watch an even worse movie. But for now, let’s get to business.
Perhaps the real value of analyzing a shitty film is just educational, to know what not to do. Not every film should have The Immigrant’s yellow hues, revolving between majestic and sickly shades, or the blunt gunshots of American Sniper, but they serve their films and their ideas remarkably well. Meanwhile, all of The Judge’s mistakes are patently obvious and so avoidable I laughed repeatedly at some of the film’s biggest lapses in judgement, or simple logic. In that case, let’s start with its most grievous sin: Thomas Newman’s belabored, mediocre, and almost hilariously manipulative score. Never does it appear to conjure up any emotion or idea that the film didn’t already want us to feel, hammering home whatever plodding plot development we’ve just realized. Duvall reveals that he will not be using his cancer diagnosis in his defense before walking off to nowhere, and as the camera pans across Downey’s permanently blank yet aggrieved and annoyed expression, Newman runs up to us screaming that this is Important, and that we should definitely be feeling Sad right now, as if we could be feeling anything about The Judge except sadness. Does Newman even trust the audience to understand such a straightforward, one-emotion-per-scene film? It’s completely overbearing, and ends up making the moments where his score isn’t present stronger simply for that fact. If there are any tender mercies in Newman’s seeming relentlessness, Robert Duvall’s speeches are at least allowed to flow on whatever dubious power that may ultimately be instead of getting musical backup. But no montage, no major scene transition, no tragic revelation can go unscored, and they are all the worse for being so cobbled down by Newman.
From here, I suppose all of the film’s other sins are about equally awful, but they all deserve a special shout-out and breakdown of their terribleness. Having just seen Bridge of Spies, it makes sense that the culprit behind The Judge’s ugly look and terrible lighting is Janusz Kaminiski. Not that Spies looks bad at all – I agree with but would not vote for the film’s Production Design nomination (and I liked Thomas Newman’s score, but would swap its nomination for Original Score in a heartbeat for the achievements of Creed or It Follows), but Kaminski’s lensing is often detrimental to the look of both of films. Every bit of light coming through a window or out of a lamp makes each one look like a miniature sun, and the actors are lit so oddly that real human people seem only degrees away from entering the Uncanny Valley. Sometimes it works, tamping itself down to the sickly blues of the ward a cancer-ridden Duvall is resting in, but this can’t compare to the frequent moments of overlighting. The darks aren’t as overwhelming, but the neutral color palette is a hard range to fuck up, and the general dimness only makes the contrasting Brights even Brighter. Maybe there’s a majesty to having every wrinkle on Duvall’s forehead illuminated, just as there surely must have been when he did it for Mark Rylance, but I can’t see past the glare.
As mentioned, the film’s screenplay is almost forgivable if you pretend this was written seventy years ago. But Christ, as a piece of contemporary writing, I have only scorn for Nick Schenk and perhaps even moreso for Bill Dubuque. I have not seen any of their previous works, but from the looks and descriptions of Schenk’s Gran Torino (which I may see, for Eastwood completion) and Dubuque’s The Accountant (Ben Affleck’s autistic superhitman thing) and The Family Man (a Gerard Butler vehicle about a workaholic whose son gets cancer soon after Butler is promoted to run the company he works at) seem impressively bad and cliched, though here I mostly look at Dubuque, since this nonsense fits far more with his scripts, and Schenk’s Wikipedia page doesn’t even list his writing credit for The Judge. It’s incredibly ham-handed, overstuffed with subplots that never come to any kind of fruition. The sad pasts of side character like the brothers, of Downey’s hometown girlfriend left behind, giving him an ex-wife to scream at and whose response to muffle completely while the cheery daughter is six feet away, both parents convinced their child doesn’t know about their upcoming divorce. Suggesting at any moment where Downey unknowingly hooked up with his biological daughter is a truly disgusting feature in the script, the actual reveal only slightly less awful than what had been repeatedly implied to us. Do I even have to say out loud that this is a misogynistic script? It’s a misogynistic script, and also a truly shitty one that neglects every one of its character inside a spectacularly bad plotline. Individual moments like when Downey meets with any other lawyer, Downey talking down and at several bar patrons who were imprisoned by his father before seduced his not-daughter, Duvall’s hiring of Dax Shepard’s incredibly incompetent attorney, everything after the verdict on Duvall’s murder case is passed, are some of the worst things I’ve ever had to seen an actor try and put over as anything a real person would do.
Should I even bother with direction, since David Dobkin’s direction is so extraordinarily limp that I can’t even think of a contribution of his that isn’t ever overwhelmed by what any other participant does. It’s just not remarkable at all, and unlike everyone else in the film I can’t even imagine what he brought to the table, besides maybe unifying the film under an umbrella of shittiness. And aside from Downey and Duvall, the actors all feel more like hostages trapped in this dretch. I cried out in horror once Vera Farmiga appeared on screen, and for Denis O’Hare, gifted with only having to appear in a single scene. It was sad to be reacquainted with Bernard the Elf by seeing Downey piss on his shoes, and I was left truly baffled by what Billy Bob Thornton was doing here. I felt pity for the actor who played Duvall’s bailiff, for the performers who had to feature in the mentally challenged brother’s home movie as the childhood version of these characters, for the woman who plays the dead mother, and thankful that the actor as that brother was at least electing to have a non-presence instead of garishly overplaying his mental illness. Maybe Vincent D’Onofrio grew his sadness beard in response to getting this part. But I felt no pity for Downey’s angsty simmering, and was vaguely appreciative for Duvall trying his best with that shitty dialogue. At no point is Downey ever a sympathetic presence, anyone to root for or care about, and the scripted nastiness is clearly accentuated by the most common tics of the performer, as though Iron Man was completely shorn of his charm and remained the smug, self-satisfied bastard Tony Stark would have been had he never been bombed and kidnapped. It’s an entirely intolerable performance, and one exacerbated by Downey’s own worst tendencies. I should say that I don’t think Duvall gives or has the material to give in any way a good performance, let alone one worthy of a goddamn Academy Award nomination, but the film is so reverential of his character that it occasionally makes Newman put down the strings and lets the outright majesty and potency of Duvall’s warbling speak for itself. It’s not good, per se, but he gets the closest to finding an actual character and suggesting what a better version of this film could be, as low as that bar is.
Before closing I’d like to just take a moment to single out the two single worst moments in the film, so awful that they made me laugh out loud. The first comes early, when part of Downey’s initial “driving back home” montage features a completely VFX shot of his car driving alongside a corn field, digital stocks rustling in the winds as he passes by. And the second, unexpected gem in this shitstain, is when Billy Bob Thornton’s out-of-town lawyer unfurls his shiny metal cup with the exact same, sharp, poisonous SHNK sound bite that ALWAYS used when someone whips out a knife super fast. But these were small, accidental joys in a film I’m still somewhat shocked I’m not giving an F, especially since it more than earns that grade repeatedly. Maybe I just can’t give a Vera Farmiga film the worst grade a movie can get. Either way, and I’m sure you already knew this, but don’t see The Judge. If you’re an Oscar completist like me, don’t save it for last. Rip it off quick like a bandaid, and save the actual artistic achievements like Boyhood and Birdman and Two Days, One Night and the films I mentioned at the top for later, as a soothing balm to remind yourself what magic and power a movie can achieve. Maybe how this pile of shit ever got in front of a camera, much less an Academy Award nominee, is a bigger mystery than anything in Gone Girl, but the answers may be even more horrific and unsettling, and best left to shit itself in the bathroom rather than engage with.