A peak at Robert Downey Jr.
If you’re a sports fan, chances are good you’ve seen an all-time great playing during his peak, dominating the competition. Michael Jordan during the 90’s, Roger Federer during the 00’s, and Tiger Woods before his wife beat up his car with a golf club after she found out what he really meant when he said he was going on tour. Entertainment is no different, with plenty of stars dominating at different times. Arnold Schwarzenegger during the 80’s, Tom Cruise before he jumped on Oprah’s couch, and Mel Gibson before revealing his tolerance toward certain religious faiths that rhyme with Newish. Now, here we are in 2014, witnessing another dominating run by an actor who decided to be an idiot early in his career rather than torpedo his legacy at the end – one, Robert Downey Jr.
Throughout his career, Downey has been recognized for the talent he is, but his dominant run didn’t start until 2008, when Ironman was released and he took his acting to the next level as Tony Stark/Ironman. Later that year, Tropic Thunder happened and we found out what happens when an American actor hitting his peak plays a white, Australian actor playing a black soldier uttering the line “What do you mean you people?” And, if that wasn’t enough, he scored the triple crown in 2009, delivering us a Sherlock Holmes we never knew we were missing. And just like that, Downey was at the top of the heap, effortlessly delivering more Ironman and more Sherlock and making us all wonder what will happen when Ironman and The Avengers run their course and Sherlock is put back on the bookshelf because he and Benedict Cumberbatch will never be topped. Well, wonder no longer because The Judge has proven that he doesn’t need to portray a superhero to show us how good he can be.
In The Judge, Downey plays Hank Palmer, a big-shot defense attorney who is forced to return to his childhood home in nowhere-ville, Indiana for his mother’s funeral. Hank is immediately established as priggish jerk who cares nothing of innocence or guilt in his clients and cares only for himself and maybe for his daughter. This veneer is almost immediately attacked when his younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong) stealthily films Hank alone in the funeral home holding his mother’s hand. Soon thereafter, we meet his older brother, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), and his father, Joe – the judge – (Robert Duvall). There is bickering and tension, mostly between Hank and the judge. Hank tries to leave, but the judge is arrested on suspicion of murder and Hank reluctantly returns at the behest of Glen to defend his father. Now, based on the previews, you probably think this movie is a courtroom drama (think A Few Good Men or anything adapted from John Grisham) with some family strife thrown in, but it’s the other way around. In fact, it’s probably the most disappointing thing about the movie because the law and the case play a distant second fiddle to the family dynamics and Hank and the judge’s relationship. That’s not a bad thing, but people aren’t going to be too excited to see a movie featuring a main story that Julia Roberts has already beaten to death on numerous occasions and is probably the reason behind its current 50% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
While the movie is filled with worn out clichés, Downey does what every all-time great does – he puts the film on his back and carries it and everyone in it to a better place. In this film, Downey is ridiculously good and you can see it most clearly when he isn’t saying anything. His body language and reactions to other actors or dialogue during scenes is so well done that it seems as if he isn’t acting at all (which is really the whole point of acting). There is a scene where he is sitting in a hospital with Glen and Dale, Glen says something rude to Dale, and Hank gets a look of disgust on his face that looks so real you’d think D’Onofrio’s line wasn’t even in the script, but an actual jab at Strong himself. That kind of thing happens often and you truly believe that Downey feels what the screenplay says Hank is supposed to feel.
While Downey was doing all the heavy lifting, his supporting cast held their own. Dax Shepard, Vera Farmiga, and Billy Bob Thornton rounded out the cast in smaller roles, but were important in that they provided the catalysts and development needed to further flesh out Hank’s character and growth. Though, I will admit that every time I saw D’Onofrio, all I could think was “tell ‘em what they missed Detective Goran.”
As I said, if you are hoping for a courtroom drama with lawyers screaming about handling or deserving truths, you are going to be disappointed. If you are okay with a family drama that probably hits a lot closer to home for more people than it should, you will appreciate this movie. But, either way, if you are a fan of Downey for more reasons than a snarky attitude and cool facial hair, you won’t see a better performance.
Rating: Ask for a dollar back because, like me, you really did want this to be a little more Law and Order and a little less Steel Magnolias.