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For Your Consideration: 'The Judge'

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The Judge, directed by David Dobkin, R. Duvall
The Judge, the latest feature from Washington, D.C.-born director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers), is not a great film. The screenplay, by Nick Schenk (Gran Torino) and Bill Dubuque, is rather classic, if not really hackneyed, father-son alienation stuff. Robert Downey, Jr. plays slick Chicago defense lawyer Hank Palmer, a man who is at the top of his career, because he has no moral qualms about defending sleaze, and who is at the bottom of his marriage, because he is mostly married to his work. He gets a chance to reconsider his life when he suddenly learns that his mother has died and he has to go home to Carlinville, a small town in far southern Indiana, to confront his estranged father. He has kept himself away from his family for so long that his young daughter, played by the adorable Emma Tremblay (The Giver), has never met her grandparents.

Everyone calls his father "Judge," because of his long, rather severe career on the bench at the local courthouse. One part of the film is a courtroom thriller, as the Judge, played by Robert Duvall, is accused of a crime. The second part is the father-son rapprochement thing, as Hank steps in to help defend the Judge, when a local lawyer (Dax Shepard, from Parenthood) realizes that he is in way over his head. The third part is the final stage of adolescence thing, in which Hank has to confront the town he left behind, including a rather dull subplot involving his ex-girlfriend, played with pluck by Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air). In this part of the movie, we learn about Hank's involvement in an accident that affected his older brother, Glen, played as a big bear of a guy by Vincent D'Onofrio, and the eccentricities of his younger brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong), who seems to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum.

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The Academy gave The Judge only one nomination, for Robert Duvall as Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Duvall gives a strong performance, but not one that marks his career. He has been nominated several times and has received an award -- albeit some time ago, for Tender Mercies -- so it does not seem likely that it will happen this year, especially when the category is likely to be used to show some recognition to Birdman or Whiplash. Perhaps the film hit me because of its use of flashbacks to Hank's childhood and fishing with the Judge, as well as their regular visits to "the lake house." This felt quite authentic to me, who have had a similar angling-rich family life in the Hoosier State, except in the northern half of it.

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