First, a word from our sponsors. Ever wonder what a reader for a contest or agency thinks when he reads your screenplay? Check out my new e-book published on Amazon: Rantings and Ravings of a Screenplay Reader, including my series of essays, What I Learned Reading for Contests This Year, and my film reviews of 2013. Only $2.99. http://ow.ly/xN31r
In the opening scene of The Judge, the new courtroom cum father/son we hate each other so much we love each other drama, defense attorney Hank Palmer (the kind of attorney who’ll defend anybody for anything as long as the price is right) is confronted by the prosecuting attorney Mike Kattan (the type of character that believes in truth, justice and the American way, so the filmmakers chose an actor, David Kromholtz, whose mere appearance would elicit laughter, to play the part next to the Ironman, alpha male, washboard stomach Robert Downey, Jr., who plays Hank) and they have one of those scene thingies where they debate the morality of it all.
At the end of the discussion (accompanied by mature goings on like Hank peeing on Mike’s pants), Hank sums up all the clichés that have taken place in that one encounter (and using the word “cliché” to describe it).
If the writers, Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, were attempting to get away with the use of overdone platitudes, familiar formula and trite tropes by calling attention to what they were doing—well, okay, in their defense one can at least one can say they knew what they were doing when they were doing it and were trying to do something about it.
Not in their defense? It not only didn’t work, it just made the clichés feel more clichéd.
And it doesn’t stop there. This is the type of screenplay that can be found on pg. 101 of any standard screenwriting book, except that this one tends toward the clunky side, with a story that at times gets off focus and wanders around a bit too much—in other words, it’s formula, but not even as well written as that.
The basic set up is as follows: In the middle of a trial, Hank has to go home to small town America when his mother dies and has to stay on when his father, grumpy, irascible, good ol’ Mr. Wilson—sorry, that’s another movie, I meant Joseph Palmer—is arrested for murder (don’t you hate when that happens).
As the two have battles of will over how to try the case (debating whether to use Hank’s citified do anything to win tactics or the judge’s the truth shall set you free approach); the awful way Hank was treated by his father (which, it turns out, was pretty deserved); and whether the judge is losing it (he is), the two slowly, but in cinematic surety, fight, claw and crawl their way to an understanding of one other.
The whole thing is sincere. I have to give it that. And everybody gives it there all.
But I’m sorry, the obviousness of all the plot twists and turns, the too on the nose of the dialog and action, the been there, done that feel of the whole thing was, for me personally, more than a bit painful at times to get through.
Perhaps the nadir of the conflict is when Hank is examining his father on the witness stand and he uses it as an opportunity to explore his father’s reasons for why Joseph treated Hank the way he did and not only does the prosecuting attorney not object, wondering what in hell it has to do with the price of tea in China, the judge doesn’t even raise his eyebrows in objection.
Downey, Jr., does his usual shtick and, normally, that would be more than enough. After all, his shtick is so brilliant and so him, no one else can do it as well, he can usually carry a movie to full term on his own. He’s a wonderful actor and his rock and roll way of delivering lines and the devilish glean in his eyes and his refusal to grow older, are usually so welcome they can overcome any bit of catastrophe he is cast in.
The same for Robert Duvall as Joseph, who has almost patented cantankerous and cranky old men as of late.
The two are two of our most respected actors. But here, their particular styles just seem to emphasize just how clichéd the whole thing is. It’s as if they know they were cast to overcome a weak script, but work so hard at doing so, it just calls more attention to how weak it is.
The pleasures, what few there are, come in supporting roles. First is the small town where the majority of the movie takes place, with large, leafy trees, clean tourist trap streets, and those marvelous, huge two story houses with wrap around porches. It’s rather beautifully shot and it’s somewhat of a pleasure to look at.
It also has a solid supporting cast with Vincent D’Onofrio as the frustrated older brother; Jeremy Strong as the autistic younger one; Vera Farmiga, totally wasted, as Downey’s former love interested (you keep wondering why she’s in this movie); Dax Shephard as a nervous lawyer with a tendency to projectile vomit; and an aging, but impressive Ken Howard as the judge in the judge’s case (he carries the weight of his years in his face).
However, the movie is really stolen with the sudden and unexpected appearance of Billy Bob Thornton as the prosecuting attorney. He strides into the courtroom with all the colossus of a George C. Scott entering the halls of justice in Anatomy of a Murder. Thornton is so confident, so focused, so assuredly there, that when he appears, you go, “Uh, oh, the judge be in trouble now”.
Not even Ironman can wrest away control of the scenes the two are in.
The direction, by David Dobkin, gets the job done, but the screenplay overwhelms him and he doesn’t do anything particularly imaginative.
With Balthazar Getty of the Getty clan as Deputy Hanson (remember him from Lord of the Flies?—he’s a bit older now, but aren’t we all?).
The Blue Room is also about a murder, but the way that the writers Stephanie Cleau (who also stars) and Mathieu Almaric (who also stars and also directs) structure it and tell the story, it takes more than awhile to figure that out.
I mean, knowing that it’s based on a novel by legendary mystery author Georges Simenon (creator of the legendary Inspector Magritte), of course there’s going to be a murder somewhere along the way. But still, with the way Cleau and Almaric dramatize the various events (out of chronological order and with a very fragmented editing technique, leaping leap frog from scene to scene to scene), it’s just a tad hard to really know what is what.
It is rather clear from the opening scene that one Julien (Almaric) is having an affair with one Esther (Cleau). Then, after some time (and I mean, some time), you do figure out that Esther’s husband is dead and Julien has been accused of his murder (before this, you just know someone is dead, but as far as that goes, it could be Esther).
There’s also a big emphasis on the fact that Esther tended to bite Julien on the lip drawing blood every once in awhile, though I’m not convinced there was a payoff for this.
Then after another long while, you find out that Julien’s wife is also dead and that he is accused of her murder as well. Then after another long while, you figure out that Esther is also accused of the murders as well.
But the storytelling is so disjointed, that not only does it make it very difficult to follow the plot, it’s almost impossible to become emotionally involved with Julien. You just aren’t given the time or the scenes to connect with him in any significant way. It’s a story told by editing, not by character, and I’m not sure that works to the film’s advantage.
And then it ends and you sort of know what went on, what the big reveal means. I mean, I think I do. I’m pretty sure what happened, but I’m not really that sure so instead of having an emotional release, I’m just trying to put two and two together, wondering if I got it right.
And the ending leaves you with this odd feeling that there’s an act missing (the film is only 76 minutes long). My first thought was that it was act three and that everyone just called the game early. But the more I considered it, I felt, no, it was all of act two that was missing, the scenes where our understanding of what is happening to Julien and why it is happening grow and we see the trap slowing closing in.
As it is, it doesn’t feel as if the movie ends. It just seems to stop.