The Judge (R )Directed by David DobkinStarring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert DuvallOpens Friday, Oct. 8
My nightmare involves being sequestered with a jury of critics. As Groucho Marx once said, "I don't want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member." Yet, every September I spend an uneasy amount of time with critics who descend on the Toronto International Film Festival. Listening to someone else's real-time commentary during a screening is irritating (especially when their opinion is a polar opposite of your own). So it was with the critics' screening of The Judge, a film I find totally entertaining despite what some of my (shudder) colleagues might say.
I made a point of attending two screenings: one with media, another with the paying public. I might as well have attended a funeral and a wedding; the reactions were that dissimilar.
A quick look at Rotten Tomatoes (the go-to online barometer of movie critics and audiences) indicates that barely half of the critics delivered a positive verdict on The Judge. Much of the negative criticism has emerged from the blogosphere.
"Judge dreadful," wrote HeyUGuys.com.
"Imagine My Cousin Vinny but much longer and without any of the good parts," wrote @FilmDrunk.
"Deserves to be held in contempt," wrote CraveOnline.com.
Funny stuff, but that's clearly not the experience I shared with several hundred movie goers at the public screening of The Judge. We had a grand ol' time.
"It's not just a courtroom drama," Robert Downey Jr. told Boise Weekly in Toronto minutes before the world premiere screening. "This is the kind of movie we grew up loving. It's a great piece of entertainment with strong themes."
And it's my contention that audiences are craving something fresh from Downey, who has been wrapped in iron (Ironman 1, 2 and 3; The Avengers) or a cloak (Sherlock Holmes 1 and 2) for the better part of the past decade. In The Judge, we're reminded of what a great actor he is and, at 49 years old, it's stunning to remember he barely made it out of the 1990s alive. He started that decade with a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Chaplin but ended it with a three-year prison sentence. Much of Downey's life had been defined by drugs: At the age of 8, he says, he got his first joint from his father.
"Suffice to say, I saved a lot money on therapy by doing this film. I worked out some of my 'dad issues' with you," Downey said, looking over at Robert Duvall, who looked back with a smile that only a father—or father-figure—could share.
In the film, Duvall portrays Judge Joseph Palmer. He has just lost his wife, which triggers his son Hank (Downey) to return to his Indiana home. It's a nasty reunion from the get-go, with way too much unpacked baggage. Things take a turn when, hours after the funeral, the judge is accused of murder. And a hotshot prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton) wants nothing more than to hang the righteous magistrate, so it's up to Hank to keep his father from spending the rest of his days behind bars
"Honestly, I never worked on a film with so much improvisation to help us explore our characters," said Duvall. "Even at my age, there's room to grow."
At 83, Duvall has, in a way, come full circle from one of his first screen roles as Boo Radley in 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird, perhaps the most definitive courtroom drama of the 20th century.
Downey and Duvall, in the year's most inspired casting, are at their best. Ignore what the critics have to say. You be the judge.