The Judge


The awkward moment when Vincent D'Onofrio asks Robert Downey Jr. for an autograph.

The awkward moment when Vincent D’Onofrio asks Robert Downey Jr. for an autograph.

(2014) Drama (Warner Brothers) Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Billy Bob Thornton, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Grace Zabriskie, Denis O’Hare, Sarah Lancaster, Lonnie Farmer, Matt Riedy, Mark Kiely, Jeremy Holm, Catherine Cummings, Tamara Hickey. Directed by David Dobkin

The relationship between a father and a son is often a difficult thing. Men have a tendency towards competitiveness. Fathers love their sons fiercely and want them to be successful which is, after all, a reflection on them as dads. However, there is a part of every dad who is terrified that the day will come when his son surpasses him as a man. That’s where the difficulty comes in.

Hank Palmer (Downey) is a high-powered defense attorney in Chicago. When asked how he is able to defend the guilty, he quips “the innocent can’t afford me.” If Tony Stark were a defense attorney, he’d be Hank Palmer.

In court one afternoon he gets the devastating news that his mother has passed away suddenly. Not really looking forward to it, he returns to his small town Indiana home for the funeral. There he meets up with his two siblings; older brother Glen (D’Onofrio), once a promising baseball phenom, and younger brother Dale (Strong) who has emotional challenges and usually can be found using a Super 8 camera to record snippets of his life which he edits into films that have no context for anyone other than Dale.

And then there’s Hank’s dad (Duvall), whom Hank refers to as “The Judge” – not Dad, not Pop, not Father but the title. It’s not just Hank defining his father by his chosen career as a dispenser of justice, but also coloring the relationship he has with him. Talk about daddy issues.

The two get along like Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid jostling for space in front of the news camera and Hank is only too happy to return home despite reconnecting with Samantha Powell (Farmiga), an old flame. Hank is in the market at the moment as his marriage to his wife Lisa (Lancaster) has collapsed after her infidelity. His precocious daughter Lauren (Tremblay) is torn between her two parents when it comes to who she wants to live with.

Hank is sitting down in his seat on board the plane when he gets an urgent call from Glen – the Judge has been arrested for a hit and run accident. The victim was Mark Blackwell (Kiely), a man the Judge had put away in prison but had recently been released. The two have an unpleasant history.

With a suave district attorney (Thornton) looking to put the Judge away for good, it will take all of Hank’s skill as a defense lawyer to keep his dad out of jail. But said father isn’t necessarily being the most cooperative defendant ever and there are things that Hank discovers when he begins digging that turn his perception of the case – and his father – on its ear.

Dobkin, whose career thus far has been fairly uneven, has a solid winner here and it starts with the casting. Duvall is one of the world’s best living actors and at 83 he still can deliver a powerful performance. He lends gravitas to the movie as well as a kind of moral certainty. Downey who at one time was on the road to being one of America’s most promising serious actors until his career was briefly derailed, moves back into proving that his Oscar nominations for Chaplin and Tropic Thunder were no flukes. This may be his best performance ever, showing a deeply conflicted man wrestling with the demons of his past and the guilt that accompanies the decisions he’s made. D’Onofrio is the rock of the family in many ways now that his mom is gone and his performance is also very compelling. Farmiga as the girlfriend who got away continues to amass an impressive resume of performances.

Some of the plot points seem to come right out of the TV lawyer handbook and that can be distracting. Not that this is a police procedural in any sense of the concept, but it is definitely something of a legal procedural, although the movie tends to spend less time with the nuts and bolts of preparing a case and more with what happens during a trial. In its favor, the movie’s ending isn’t neat and tidy by any stretch of the imagination. Like most human endeavors, court case rarely end with satisfaction over the outcome by everyone involved.

Dobkin cast this movie extremely well and has given us a very strong courtroom drama that is also portrays a dysfunctional family dynamic which sets this apart from other courtroom dramas. Downey references Atticus Finch and to be sure this is no To Kill a Mockingbird but the performances here make this something worth seeking out for anyone who appreciates strong acting.

REASONS TO GO: Duvall brings gravitas. Downey, D’Onofrio, Farmiga and Thornton all give strong performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Has kind of a TV drama quality to it.
FAMILY VALUES: Foul language with some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature release from Team Downey, the production company that Downey and his wife started.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: August: Osage County
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Book of Life

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Mercy (2009)


Mercy

Wendy Glenn has a problem with the script.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Scott Caan, Wendy Glenn, Troy Garity, Erika Christensen, Alexie Gilmore, James Caan, Dylan McDermott, Whitney Able, John Boyd, Balthazar Getty, Kelly Lynch, Dorian Brown, Bre Blair. Directed by Patrick Hoelck

Love is as ephemeral as perfume; there in your senses one moment, disappearing on the barest puff of wind the next. We all need to bathe in it; drown in it; feel it all around us but it is the nature of love that it can be cruel as well.

Johnny Ryan (Scott Caan) is a successful author of what amounts to romance novels. Unfortunately, he may not be the best qualified man to write them. His life has been a series of one night stands and failed relationships. Johnny doesn’t believe much in love; he doesn’t want to give it that much power over him. He is sexy and handsome enough to capture the attention of women, particularly those who read his books and find them to be romantic but he himself doesn’t think romance is real.

Then he meets Mercy Bennett (Glenn) at a party celebrating his latest book and the two hit it off. It isn’t until afterwards that he discovers that she is a book reviewer and she’s written a particularly scathing review of his latest review. Far from being upset, he’s fascinated and curious and arranges to meet her to discuss the book and why she hated it so. It turns out she thinks he lacks depth, which I can certainly agree with.

The two wind up developing a relationship that grows and matures until they are very much in love. Suddenly Mr. Doesn’t Believe in Love is a believer. Still, life has a way of throwing us curveballs, some quite wicked and one is thrown at Johnny, one that will cause him to doubt even the most basic preconceptions he’s ever had and turn to the most unlikely place for answers – his father Gerry (James Caan), who initially forged Johnny’s belief that romance is a myth.

The movie is smartly written by Scott Caan, extremely literate in its conventions. I liked the conceit of naming the two parts of the movie “Before” and “After,” which lead you to a central event which shapes the movie (one which shouldn’t be disclosed here in order to preserve the element of surprise it brings). Caan also stretches his wings a little bit as an actor; the roles he is usually assigned are as second bananas, so it’s nice to see him take a lead role for a change. His scenes with his father in the second half of the movie are the best in the movie. Glenn also does a good job in the thankless role that could easily have been relegated to plot contrivance; instead, she fleshes it out and gives the part a little bit of bite that helps flavor the film a bit.

However, most of the other roles – including the usually reliable McDermott as Johnny’s agent – are undefined and somewhat bland. Even if Caan does a fine job acting, he is let down by his writer who crafts a character whose parts don’t end up adding up to the sum the movie wishes you to arrive at. That leaves you with a vaguely unsettled feeling, as if you’re being asked “what’s wrong with this picture” and you can’t quite put your finger on it.

Mercy explores the nature of love as redemption to a very large extent (although that’s not the only thing the movie is about, that seems to be its primary mission so to speak) and that’s a tall order for any film. The movie asks us to take a lot on faith – why a confirmed bachelor would suddenly change his outlook almost 180 degrees for someone who thinks him (and correctly so) shallow is a bit of a stretch for me. Still, the movies main sin of reaching for lofty heights is a forgivable one, and while this isn’t enough for me to rave over, there’s enough going on here to make the movie at least an interesting viewing.

WHY RENT THIS: Scott Caan does an exceptional job and his scenes with his father are well done.  The filmmakers capture the L.A. literary scene nicely.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is a bit pedestrian and the characters don’t really grab the attention as well as they might.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is salty at times.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second time that James and Scott Caan have appeared in a movie together (the first was A Boy Called Hate in 1995) and in both they have played father and son, which they are in real life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6,780 on an unreported production budget; the movie was a flop in its theatrical release.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Dukes