Pure Schmaltz

Robert Downey Jr. Just Made the Year’s Sappiest Flick

In 'The Judge', which made its premiere at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, he stars as a hotshot lawyer defending his judge-father on a murder charge. It’s pure schmaltz.

Excuse me, but are you in need of sap? You know, the concentrated, straight-from-the-source stuff that makes you feel all mushy inside and forces you to openly weep in front of strangers? If so, then boy, do I have a movie for you. It’s called The Judge, a film so sappy it’s guaranteed to suck every Canadian maple farm dry by the end of the week.

Premiering at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, The Judge develops its sugary, sentimental core from a strained relationship between Hank Palmer and his dad, Joe. Robert Downey Jr. plays the son, a bigwig Chicago attorney who proudly defends wealthy white-collar criminals. Robert Duvall is Joe, Hank’s dad, a persnickety, hot-tempered judge with a no-nonsense attitude––particularly when it comes to his own family. However, the two estranged figures look to reconcile after Hank’s mom passes away. While he’s there, Hank learns that Joe is facing murder charges for allegedly hitting a man with his car.

Before the premiere of The Judge, Downey spoke a bit about what the film looks to accomplish. “The movie is about judgment, it’s about reconciliation, it’s about salvation,” said Downey, someone who likely went through a healthy dose of all three during his rehab days. “It’s really about the dad, and the dad has to be a mountain that Hank has to climb.” Well, they do certainly climb a mountain, but the journey to the top is a lot less exciting than it should be.

The Judge looks to present itself both as a courtroom drama and a father-son forgiveness session, a combination that works about 35 percent of the time. Ultimately, its downfall is the script. The Judge is all cookie-cutter––a disappointment considering the talent director David Dobkin secured for the project; in addition to Downey and Duvall, there’s Billy Bob Thornton, Vera Farmiga, and Vincent D’Onofrio. Here, Downey Jr. is once again playing a snarky, womanizing hotshot who can’t help but throw in a few zingers every scene, even in the more serious sequences. Vera Farmiga and Vincent D’Onofrio do what they can, but they aren’t given much. Their characters feel like forced plot points.

Overall, The Judge wants to be insightful and funny and sad, but it instead ends up being clichéd and redundant. Farmiga stars as the still-beautiful ex-girlfriend who never left her hometown, Jeremy Strong is the goofy younger brother who provides comic relief with a twist (he makes 8mm movies!), Downey Jr. is the kid who ran away from Indiana as fast as he could but is now back looking to make things right. And then there’s a little girl named Lauren (Emma Tremblay, playing Downey Jr.’s daughter), who doles out advice to her father and pops up when the plot is looking to shamelessly siphon a couple more tears out of the audience. That last observation wouldn’t be as terrible if The Judge didn’t telegraph its plot points. One by one, Downey’s Hank has a heart-to-heart with each of these people, like he’s on some giant apology tour. The problem isn’t that that’s unrealistic, it’s that it becomes boring watching it over and over again. Honestly, the biggest surprise of the film is the amount of vomit and additional human waste we end up seeing on screen. For a movie that’s looking to tug at the heartstrings, it gets oddly messy.

The Judge is currently set for an October 10 release date, a ripe calendar spot for a potential Oscar run. In fact, the studio distributing the film, Warner Bros., has seen recent success in the October slot in years past, with Gravity and Best Picture-winner Argo. Predicting who’s going to win an Academy Award this early in the season is a chump’s game, of course. Too many things can change between now and then. Also, awards are as much about politics as they are about performances. Right now, I am going to assume that The Judge will be a few dozen licks shy of true Oscar material. Instead, it's for the mainstream crowds looking for an uplifting fall film. And hey, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Considering the terrible current events from this past summer, perhaps we need a movie that looks to just give us something overwhelmingly sweet.