Thursday, October 16, 2014

"The Judge" provides extensive courtroom drama, but doesn't always follow the law

The Judge”, the new drama film by David Dobkin from Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow (which often used to produce big dramatic pictures together), is set in southern Indiana.  There are low ranges and hills around Brown County State Park, around Nashville, which I remember visiting in 1970 when on a long travel assignment with my first job with RCA. (Bloomington and Indiana University are nearby.)  It gets hilly around the rivers, even as the prairie drops in elevation.  

 The film, however, was filmed in Massachusetts, which makes the rustic setting look more mountainous than it can be.  I like to see outdoor scenes shot where they really are supposed to happen.  Around 2000, I made a friend,  a law student at Southern Illinois University, originally from Evansville, IN, and I understand that he is now a prosecutor in the area.  All of this came back to me as I watched the film. The film also has two tornado siren scenes and some effective windstorms.  

Robert J. Downey, Jr. plays Hank Palmer, a hot-shot defense lawyer in Chicago, whose reputation is to get guilty clients off.  Downey bounces through the film with the body language of a 25-year old (even though he is almost 50).  The movie starts with a rather embarrassing encounter in a men’s room (cats urinate to mark their terrirtory), before it opens up.  While in court, Palmer gets a cell phone call that his mother in a southern Indiana town has passed.  He has to ask for a continuance.

He goes down there and immediately meets his dad Joseph (Robert Duvall, 83) still on the bench as a county judge prolific in his cases and uncompromising with defendants, and two brothers Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), who had lost a chance for a baseball pitching career to a mysterious accident and is now overweight, and Dale (Jeremy Strong), who likes to play at making movies but seems somewhat autistic and protected.  The first night, Joseph goets out for groceries.  The next day, after a humorous exchange about driving skills when parking by backing in, Hank notices some damage and blood on the grille of his dad’s Cadillac.  He goes back to the airport, and as his plane leaves, gets another cell phone call that his dad has been arrested for a hit-and-run death of a pedestrian.

So Hank now gets to defend another maybe-guilty client, his dad, taking over from a listless county lawyer (Dax Shepard), who vomits outside the courthouse before every hearing, opposing a sharp prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton), who wants to go for first degree murder, claiming that the judge targeted a nasty former defendant who had gotten off easy on a technicality, after a happenstance angry encounter at the convenience store.  There are some problems with the legal scenarios:  this sounds more like second degree murder, not first;  and the sentencing would not happen at the same time as conviction. So the “courtroom drama” is not as realistic as it should be.
There is another subplot, involving the judge’s legacy, and his keeping his cancer and chemotherapy secret.  There is a harrowing scene where Hank has to, rather suddenly, take care of his dad’s vomit and profuse diarrhea. 

There's a scene late where the prosecutor says is that the law is the only way to make people equal.  True.  I can recall a meeting in Boston with another friend in the movie business who thought that "courtroom drama" was the best way to translate my first book into film, but that isn't the path that I followed.

The story does remind us that senior citizens can suddenly go very wrong, with tragic and perhaps shameful results. 
The official site is here.

I saw this film at the AMC Courthouse in Arlington before a substantial Wednesday night audience.

Picture: Near Brown County State Park, Aug. 2012, my strip.  

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