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The Judge

With all the recent hoopla surrounding “The Avengers” and the “Iron Man” franchise, it might be easy to forget that Robert Downey Jr. is a damn fine actor even when outside of that iconic suit. Even when his films fail to live up to expectations (2009’s “The Soloist” being a perfect example), he shines. His latest, “The Judge,” may be his single best performance yet. Working opposite the always fantastic Robert Duvall, he gives the rawest, most emotional performance of his storied career. However, like “The Soloist,” the film he resides in is less than the sum of its parts. An occasionally sloppy script and baffling directorial decisions keep this from going very far, but if you enjoy seeing two great actors at the top of their game, you can’t go wrong here.

Downey Jr. plays Hank Palmer, a soon-to-be-divorced lawyer whose cases consist entirely of defending the guilty and getting them off for whatever crime they may have committed. Naturally, he’s not a courthouse favorite, nor has he made his father, the titular Judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall), particularly proud, despite his talents. One day, he gets a call that his mother has died, so he heads back to his hometown in Indiana. A cynical man, he has clearly outgrown the small minded nature of this otherwise friendly town, a place where everyone knows each other and drivers wave as they pass each other on the road.

He hasn’t been home in years and as soon as he arrives, the hostility that kept him away resurfaces. His brothers, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong), do their best to diffuse the situation, though the latter has a harder time dealing with it due to mental illness, but his father keeps pushing. Eventually, the judge heads out to the grocery store, for both practical reasons and to get away from his disappointing son, but arrives home with no memory of what happened. Unfortunately, there’s blood on his car and a body on a road he was spotted on, the victim a violent criminal he gave a second chance to many years ago. Did he purposely run this man down to make up for his past mistake or was this a simple accident? Regardless of the answer, Hank decides to stick around and defend his father.

“The Judge” suffers not from an uninteresting premise. Although it heads in obvious directions and the eventual answer to the above question is likely to be answered by the audience far before the characters onscreen, the foundation that the narrative is built upon is sturdy. Unfortunately, it’s the execution that cripples the film. Directed by David Dobkin, a man most known for his goofball comedies like “Wedding Crashers,” “The Change-Up” and “Fred Claus,” the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Does it want to be a lighthearted dramedy about family, a message movie about moving on and forgiving others or something else entirely? It’s never very clear, as the tone shifts from here to there and back around again.

Mixing tones is not an inherently bad thing, but Dobkin simply doesn’t have a clean grasp on any of them. As one critic friend whispered in my ear during our screening, “The Judge” occasionally plays like a Lifetime movie, complete with sappy music and cheesy dialogue, and he wasn’t wrong. The music, oddly, ramps up and down seemingly based entirely on those dialogue cues. The music doesn’t enhance what’s being said or depicted, but rather exists as a manipulative force to make it seem like what’s being said has some type of emotional impact. Its lyrical selections are heavy-handed and its other selections sound so similar to the drum heavy nature of those silly crime dramas on television that it’s laughable. Visually, “The Judge” is no better, also moving uncomfortably from tone to tone, but if there’s any consolation to be had, it’s that these moments as described above are infrequent.

The saving grace, again, are the fantastic performances from the stellar cast. Aside from some notable exceptions, like Leighton Meester in a small, inconsequential role—an actress that has starred primarily in nonsense teen dramas and B-movie quality thrillers and doesn't quite have the chops to keep up with her co-stars—everyone here is great and elevates the substandard material into something more than it would be otherwise. The dialogue isn’t great, but it’s delivered with such gusto that you buy into it. It’s easy to understand the motivations and emotions driving Hank and his father, from a basic level of conflicting morals to more serious, unresolved family issues from their pasts that are revealed as the film goes on, and it’s due almost entirely to the actors in the roles.

Stilll, at nearly two and half hours, it’s understandable if certain moviegoers decide to pass on “The Judge” given its many faults, including a wholly unnecessary and uncomfortable side story involving the mystery paternity of Meester’s character, but this is not a bad movie. It is merely an underwhelming one. What had the potential to be one of the best of the year instead ends up as a mildly entertaining diversion; inconsequential, but nevertheless memorable. There will be better movies in the coming months as the awards season ramps up, but you could do worse than “The Judge.”

The Judge receives 3/5


Hit & Run

Dax Shepard has never been the most appealing actor in the world. He’s supposed to be a funnyman, but his antics never amount to more than the occasional chuckle—his most popular performances coming from Ashton Kutcher’s MTV show “Punk’d”—but he’s never quite unlikable either. He exists within that middle ground where he doesn’t do much to impress, but there’s something about him you enjoy anyway. The same can essentially be said for his fiancé Kristen Bell. Despite love from many adoring fans, she rarely stars in something worth watching. Combine the two in one movie and you have, predictably, something that is neither horrible nor very good. Similar to the stars themselves, Hit & Run fails in many regards, but somehow still retains a decent amount of charm, despite a weak script and amateurish direction from Shepard that falls into redundancy quickly.

The film stars Shepard and Bell as Charlie and Annie, a couple living somewhere in the Midwest United States who are happy with their own little existence. They love each other dearly and treat each other with respect, but one day, Annie is offered a job at a prestigious college in Los Angeles as the head of a new department, Non-violent Conflict Resolution. Unfortunately, heading to LA means putting Charlie’s life on the line—Charlie is in the Witness Protection Program and has been ever since he testified in court to put away Alex Dimitri (Bradley Cooper)—but this job is Annie’s dream job and Charlie loves her too much to keep her from achieving it. Reluctantly, he sets off to LA with her, but Alex is quickly alerted to their presence thanks to Annie’s jealous ex-lover Gil (Michael Rosenbaum), who for some reason thinks he’ll keep Annie safe by allowing the psychotic Alex to track down Charlie (besides, Charlie could be in the Witness Protection Program because he was an accomplice to any manner of evil deed).

The set-up to Hit & Run is as contrived as one could possibly get. Before they head out to LA, Annie needs her teaching license for the interview, which just so happens to be at Gil’s house and has been for the past year. This sparks Gil to contact Alex (through Facebook of all places) and tail Charlie as he innocently accompanies her to LA. If Annie simply had grabbed that teaching license when she moved out of Gil’s place, which any hopeful professor would do, this whole situation could have been avoided. But it’s not just the set-up that falls too comfortably into place. The numerous amount of coincidences in this cat and mouse tale become too much to handle. Somehow, Gil and/or Alex knows precisely where to find Charlie and Annie at seemingly all times. Even when Charlie manages to outmaneuver them, it’s only a matter of time before they stumble upon each other again. Constantly, the film asks you to go with moments like this, but it’s nigh impossible to do so.

When the characters do come into contact with each other, it inevitably leads to a car chase. Because of this, Hit & Run too often feels like a showcase for stunt driving rather than a movie with a story to tell, but none of these scenes offer up too much excitement. While it may be needless to say, this is not a Fast and the Furious movie. Those films may be light on story, but they inarguably had some incredible high velocity car chases. This movie has neither an interesting story nor fun chases. The little bit of excitement it does manage to gather dissipates with repetition. Car chase after car chase ensues in Hit & Run (to the point where I’m pretty sure if I looked at the script, whole pages would simply read in big bold font “CAR CHASE”) and it gets stale quickly.

Hit & Run has jokes that go nowhere, action scenes lacking in thrills, multiple stereotypes and characters whose actions and motivations are clumsy at best, including Randy (Tom Arnold in a horribly overacted performance), a United States Marshal who insists on protecting Charlie against his will and who only serves to complicate the situation, but the film never reaches flat out awfulness. There is a hint of sweetness to it, including the opening and closing lines of dialogue, the latter recalling the former, but the problem is that not enough time is spent building these characters and their relationship with one another for us to care. Instead, the film relies far too heavily on uninspired and overdone chase sequences and it just doesn’t work. Hit & Run isn’t the worst movie you’ll see this year, but it’s certainly one of the blandest.

Hit & Run receives 1.5/5