It’s Oscar season and so it’s time to stop reviewing movies about pointless CGI wallopfests and time to start reviewing movies about A-List actors making over-budgeted B-movies. And it’s October so it’s time to review the stuff even the studio suits know is bad, which let me tell you, means it’s really, really bad. Today’s worthless melodrama Mad Libs is The Judge, a farrago of fail from the guy who wrote Gran Torino and the guy who directed Shanghai Knights and Fred Claus. This is probably the part where you should stop reading the review because really if that sentence didn’t already scare you off seeing this why do you read movie reviews?
Big-Town Hot-Shot Lawyer (Robert Downey, Jr., of course) defends Scumbags for Money but Works Too Much so his Hot Wife Cheated On Him. Then his mom dies so he returns to his Small-Town Roots, where we learn he has Troubled Relationships with his Hard-Ass Judge Father (Robert Duvall, of course) and his two brothers – the One Whose Promising Future Was Cut Short in A Mysterious Past Event (Vincent D’Onofrio, looking unwell) and the Developmentally Disabled One (Jeremy Strong ) whose Quirky Habit of filming everything turns out to be really important to emotions and stuff. When it turns out the dad-judge may have run down the guy he Went Too Easy On Years Ago who then Killed An Innocent Girl, his only hope is, of course, his son the hot-shot lawyer.
But his city-slicking ways, which apparently entail trying to serve his client’s best interests, I guess, run counter to the Judge’s Small-Town Values, which apparently consist of inscrutable parables and petty, bitter pride. There’s an Old Flame to be rekindled (Vera Farmiga, of course), cancer, paternity mysteries, big reconciliations, all of it so on-the-nose you would have thought it a form of Byzantine political mutilation and coated with a veneer of sap so thick that in a few million years you could extract it’s DNA, Jurassic Park-style, and fill a theme park with all kinds of awful movie clichés.
The Judge is TV Tropes ebooks, a flavorless burgoo of lifeless cliché and artistic cowardice. Moments of jarring comedy occur with near-automated regularity because this is the kind of movie that’s terrified of making its audience experience five consecutive minutes of uninterrupted discomfort. It’s the kind of movie where our initial show-not-tell demonstration of a Hard-Ass Judge is involves him grossly violating the Fifth Amendment. It’s the kind of movie where our protagonist’s initial idyllic drive to his small town is through a CGI cornfield because damn it it’s just too hard to find actual corn, in America. It’s the kind of movie where they compensate for the fact that their use of Bon Iver’s “Holocene” isn’t as mortifyingly pretentious as Zach Braff’s was by playing it twice. It’s the kind of movie that, when the relationship between father and son becomes stormy, an actual tornado hits. It’s the kind of movie too afraid of alienating a single butter-brained Boomer to actually make its protagonist-in-need-of-redemption actually bad in any meaningful or challenging way. It’s the kind of movie that dabbles in weird and disturbing incest, then brushes it off as a goofy lark. It’s the kind of courtroom drama that can’t even be decisive and climactic with its decisive climactic verdict.
The Judge is too stupid and vapid to be about any of the things it thinks it’s about: the state of small town America and it’s relation to urban life; the real meaning of law and justice; the challenges and ultimate rewards of family. Instead it’s about vacuous preening for awards, awards whose purpose is apparently to incentivize creating garbage like this in an Ouroboros of middlebrow horseshit. The film’s vision of small-town life is the kind of thing that seemed thuddingly faux-idyllic fifty years ago and whose troubled core stuff like Twin Peaks capitalized on when I was in pre-school. Shoot, the main characters’ surname is “Palmer” and the actor who played Laura Palmer’s mother (Grace Zabriskie) is in it and yet it’s still somehow oblivious to the fact that it would have felt obnoxiously dated when my parents were in pre-school.
The Judge has all the soul of a Predator Drone and all the subtlety of a Hellfire Missile. It doesn’t help matters at all that this movie is directed, edited, shot, and generally put together with a maximum of schmaltz and a minimum of though, intellect, or creativity. Janusz Kamiński is really slumming it here, sliding into self-parody with the kind of mallet-to-the-face warm-cool contrasts that would be embarrassing on network television. The only part of this movie that wasn’t terrible was the cast, who in all fairness was generally pretty good , by which I mean making the best out of the salvageable parts without embarrassing themselves throughout the rest of the movie. If it sounds like I’m damning this enterprise with faint praise…well, I am.
The Judge is indistinguishable from a mediocre satire of movies just like The Judge. It’s hard to say what the worst thing about this movie is, because almost everything was bad but almost nothing was exceptionally or outrageously bad, which is really the most telling part of it. There is a space for bad movies in the cultural pantheon, but those are for the bad movies with heart, with vision, with crazy gumption. The Judge is nothing but undermicrowaved, undersalted gruel, and it’s only useful function is to tell us what the people who made it think of our intelligence.