With every year’s Toronto International Film Festival comes an opening gala with big stars in a big movie. Sometimes it’s the work of a major filmmaker, like 2012’s opener “Looper.” Sometimes it’s a high-profile prestige dog, like 2013’s bomb “The Fifth Estate.” This year, it’s “The Judge,” Robert Downey, Jr.’s first stab at a non-blockbuster since 2009’s bomb “The Soloist,” and a break from director David Dobkin’s usual run of broad comedies (“Wedding Crashers,” “The Change-Up”). The verdict? Gridlocked.
Or, rather, opinions range from “bad” to “eh, it’s not so bad.” A number of critics reacted on Twitter before sending in their reviews, usually with courtroom puns (Noel Murray of The Dissolve: “Duvall and Downey (and Thornton!) are all suitably spirited in “The Judge,’ but the hackiness? Move to strike”). Most critics have given credit to the typically assured performances of Downey and Duvall, but the film’s broad approach to family and courtroom drama grated on some nerves, from a scene where Downey watches his mentally handicapped brother’s super 8 films as Bon Iver plays to a big argument that happens during a tornado (Jordan Hoffman: “I’m recapping ‘The Judge’ to David Ehrlich and he thinks I’m making it all up’).
Whatever the case, Criticwire’s Sam Adams says that the “First person to review ‘The Judge’ in the style of a closing argument wins a prize of some sort.”
Dave Calhoun, Time Out London
A charismatic performance from Downey Jr and the growling presence of Duvall makes up for a multitude of sins in this big and brash family drama that puts the heavy emphasis on drama over family – so much so that a key late emotional scene is swallowed up by its surroundings and a central showdown between Hank and Joseph seems to catch even the filmmakers unaware. Yet there’s a stream of provincial resentment and nastiness running through ‘The Judge’ that stops it from being entirely hollow. It’s a simple story about a lost boy coming home that’s over-cooked, over-decorated and sentimental. At the same time, though, it’s rarely too cloying, and its bearhug energy and distracting cast just about act as fair compensation. Read more.
Justin Chang, Variety
Neither actor is really attempting a change of pace here, and the material plays to their strengths and distinct personas at every turn — whether it’s Duvall laying down the law, so to speak, or Downey letting loose with a withering takedown of Carlinville’s white-trash population. That makes it all the more affecting on those rare occasions when Joseph and Hank achieve an honest moment of emotional connection, informed by their dawning awareness of the indignities of old age and the inevitability of death. Duvall’s performance, his most memorable in some time, carries unmistakable echoes of the many broken-down, hard-drinking, hermit-like men he’s played in movies past, yet never before has the 83-year-old actor rendered so painfully honest a portrait of a man whose body and mind are slowly failing him. Read more.
Linda Holmes, NPR
Despite a couple of arresting moments between Downey and Duvall, the arc of the story is both dull and obvious, and the central courtroom drama – in which Hank, of course, must defend his father – is never compelling in the least. There are moments when Downey’s perfect fit with rat-a-tat lawyering seems about to catch fire, but they ultimately feel like watching a dog strain at a leash: you can tell it wants to run, but the limitations are too great. What’s more, “The Judge” seems poorly crafted. The lighting is garish, with blown-out windows and out-of-place lens flares that almost seem like mistakes. The score is oppressively saccharine, as is the other music…and there’s a window at a diner that looks out on a giant waterfall that, whether it is really there or not, looks like a green screen background on the local news. Read more.
Kevin Jagernauth, The Playlist
Over engineered for critical approval (which it likely won’t get) and audience appreciation (perhaps), the slickly produced “The Judge” is the kind of movie that would’ve been an Oscar contender in the era of “Driving Miss Daisy” (which the film references in a joke during one of Downey Jr.’s verbal riffs) but feels musty and dated now, right down to Janusz Kaminski’s consistently honeyed cinematography (which feels out of place, and almost a bit too Thomas Kinkade) and Thomas Newman’s chintzy score. “The Judge” is certainly a cinematic misdemeanor, a movie that wants to wear the robes and bang the gavel, but barely earns the right to take the stand. Read more.
Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter
Increasingly, as attention shifts from Hank’s superior attitude toward his family and hometown to the complexity of local politics and Judge’s deteriorating physical condition and potential culpability, Duvall’s character and performance come into their own. Proud and never one to acknowledge weakness, Judge must finally confront his frailties and mortality, and there are several father-son scenes of considerable intensity that ask both Downey and Duvall to go places they have seldom gone onscreen, physically and emotionally. Even when the circumstances seem contrived, the actors mine moments of truth that resonate with raw emotion. Through rough battles with disease and the law, the two men achieve a closeness that stubbornness and normal times did not foster. Read more.
Matt Mueller, Thompson on Hollywood
“The Judge” is at its best when playing as a straightforward father-son relationship drama and zeroing in on its headlining duo’s reconciliation. In the clear belief that Downey Jr. needed a wider scope and more enhanced playing field, though, Dobkin and co. have decorated the stage with too many extraneous bells and whistles. They should have simply trusted the two Roberts to carry the show. Read more.
Michael Phillips, The Chicago Tribune
A courtroom drama can get away with being two hours and 21 minutes long because the audience knows it’ll get a courtroom drama climax if they hang in there and put up with the human-interest detours. These are, in fact, the reason “The Judge” has some impact. There’s a scene in which an ailing Duvall, ravaged by chemo, makes his way to the toilet to vomit and then he’s cleaned up by his son (Downey Jr.) and the sequence, exactly as long as it should be, carries so much more honest impact than what has come before, it’s a shock to the system—a welcome one. Read more.
Susan Wloszczyna, RogerEbert.com
Despite the lack of potential met by “The Judge,” Dobkin’s well-meant intentions pour forth from every from every well-shot scene, save for an obviously digitalized depiction of corn fields in the early going. He called it “a passion project,” one inspired by his mother’s own death: “I never understood we would have to parent our own parents.” That sincere and emotional realization gives “The Judge “whatever spark it possesses. And it makes it easier to dismiss some of the few charges against it. Read more.