I am allergic to schmaltz. No, I don’t mean rendered chicken or duck fat, I mean excessive sentimentality. That being said, I am most certainly not allergic to Robert Downey Jr., because he is literally the sexiest man to ever walk the face of the Earth. See? I established my bias early. You have been forewarned: I am a huge Robert Downey Jr. fan, so obviously, I am going to say that this is the movie equivalent of the second-coming of Christ, and RDJ is Jesus. Or at the very least, I am going to tell you that either Downey or this movie are positively destined for the Oscars. Right?
WRONG. I love Mr. Downey as an actor, a human being, and as a sex God, but that does not make me love every movie he is in. If anything should establish bias here, it is not my love of RDJ, it is my absolute, uncompromising, terrifyingly venomous hatred of the aforementioned schmaltz. Put me in front of the TV when Full House is on, and I will freaking combust, man. So when I heard the early reviews that said The Judge was full to the brim with schmaltz and tear-jerker moments and long, meaningful stare-downs between Downey and Duvall, I was like, “Dear God, my Hollywood boyfriend’s new movie is going to send me to the hospital in anaphalactic shock.”
But guess what, friends? Through the entire movie, I would be watching and my Schmaltz Censor would start droning like an air raid siren, and I would hunker down defensively in my chair, and then… Nothing happened. There was schmaltz, but even with my super sensitive schmaltz allergy, it did not make me cringe.
So my question, and I am going to be vulgar: WHAT THE FUCK IS EVERYONE WHINING ABOUT?!
Oh, right. All the other things that are wrong with this movie. Robert, baby, sweetheart, love… I’m sorry. But shit’s about to get real. Allow me to give you a “compliment sandwich” (which sucks a lot worse than you might think. Sorry. Sorry. I love you. Sorry.)
The performances were amazing. Downey’s Hank is a snarky, motor-mouthed big-shot attorney who spars expertly with Duvall’s gruff, stubborn curmudgeon, the Judge. There are moment when the two fight, and moments when they come together (there is a bathroom scene that literally made me cry (a little), because, unlike the rest of the movie, this was the only time cancer was depicted in all its awful realness, and seeing Hank care for his father in this vulnerable moment touched my really cold heart that is normally impervious to such things.) In fact, that bathroom scene is pretty much guaranteed to win Duvall an Oscar nod, and, fingers crossed, it will also win Downey one, too.
The plot is rife with cliches, though. Small-town-boy turned big-city-boy goes back to being a small-town-boy temporarily so he can attend his mother’s funeral (Oh, boy, dead parent, the catalyst for big-city-boy returning to small-town in many movies like this, and oh, look, it doubles as the “prodigal son returns” storyline, too), and while he is there, his father, with whom he has a very strained relationship, to say the least, is accused of committing a violent crime, and small-town-boy must stay to defend mean daddy. Could there be a reconciliation on the horizon!? Could there be a terminal illness to speed along said reconciliation?! Could all of this familial strife possibly have a happy ending?!
No spoilers, but… yeah. Of course it does. These movies always do, and if you have read the other reviews, then you have heard about the whole “multiple endings” thing, which really is reminiscent of the multiple fade-to-white-oh-but-you-thought-it-was-over?-It’s-not-over thing from The Return of the King. Everything wraps up in a neat little bow, and at the end of this post, there is going to be a spoiler, only so I can rant and rave a little bit. Stories do not need everything wrapped up in a neat little bow. Just because there is not going to be a sequel (we think) does not mean that a little open-endedness is a bad thing. Sometimes, having the audience ask questions and speculate about the answers to those questions is okay.
But let’s talk again about schmaltz. It is here. It is not nearly as bad as the trailers made it look. Those trailers gave me hives all over my body, because not only am I allergic to schmaltz, I am also allergic to obvious Oscar-baiting, which this movie totally is. The thing is, the story, written and directed by David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, good. Fred Claus, BAD–Fred Claus required me to shoot myself up with epinephrine twice) is good, and I would say that at one time, it would be Oscar worthy. But today, it is part of this new trend of “everything including the kitchen sink” story-telling. Look at the aforementioned plot-points/cliches. Plus, there were so many characters who, though the actors who played them were very good, were so wildly unnecessary. The older brother, played by Vincent D’Onofrio? Well, sure, he’s needed. He’s the reason why Hank and his father are on such bad terms. Well, kind of. See, because there’s also this thing that happened in the past, and Dad looks at Hank, and remembers that thing. So that’s why they’re at odds. The younger brother, though he provides comic relief, is really only there for that purpose, and also so his hobby of filming everything on a Super 8 camera can further the plot. Which, gee, I guess is okay, even though he is clearly autistic, and should we really be laughing at someone with autism this much? After a while, it was almost as though he were functioning as a performing monkey, and that, my friends, is not okay. Every word out of his mouth was meant for comedic effect, and his hobby of filming his family functioned only as a way to further the plot, like when Hank discovers the true meaning of his father’s Chess games with a doctor. Or it was there to bring about more of these emotional (read–schmaltzy) revelations. So, what I am saying is, no, it’s not okay. Don’t treat autism as a way to further your story. Don’t treat it as comic relief. Don’t use it as ornament. “T.! Lighten up! It’s not that serious,” you say. Wellllll, yeah, it is. You have to find the humor in life, as any parent to a child with autism will tell you, but there is a line that, once crossed, takes it too far. Like, when literally everything an autistic character says in a movie is supposed to make you laugh.
Downey and Duvall both deserve recognition for these performances, because they are able to make the audience forget about the schmaltz and melodrama and the attacks from all sides of so many different plot points, I felt like I was being attacked by one of those automatic tennis ball machines (brother could have been a Major Leaguer, injury caused by Hank takes him out, Hank’s old girlfriend has a daughter, could it be Hank’s daughter? Well, let’s hope not, he made out with her! And did I mention that Hank is getting a divorce? He’s getting a divorce, and he and his daughter have to have a heart-to-heart about getting divorced, blah blah…). That is saying something. They made me care about these characters, even when I was stewing over the use of autism as a secondhand plot-driver and as comic relief, even when I was sometimes internally cringing but not dying at the icky sentimentality. Want another example of the latter? When Vera Farmiga (who, side note, I loooooooove; Have you ever seen Running Scared? “I heard shots across the hall.” HOLY SHIT, love her!) says, in typical small-town girl wisdom, that she decided that she wanted to be the hero of her own story, I was like, “Am I watching a conversation between two adults, or am I watching a graduation speech being made?” And Billy Bob Thornton? Criminally underused. He has a total of about fifteen minutes of screen-time, and not nearly enough verbal sparring with Downey. Not cool, bro. Not cool. Opportunity wasted.
So, my verdict, to use courtroom lingo to talk about this movie, as though every other critic hasn’t done that already? I liked it. Were you expecting that? No, I’ll bet not. I’d watch it again. I hope Downey and Duvall get nominated. It is painfully cliched, it is an annoying collision of seventeen and a half different plots that could make seventeen and a half different movies, it stoked the mama bear in me who worked for two years with kids who have autism, but I wasn’t throwing up all over my bestie as the schmaltz triggered an immuno response. So, because that was my main fear going in, and because my expectations were so low, I was surprised by how much I cared about how everything turned out for Hank and the Judge, and that made me like the movie a little.
It is not nearly as glorious or groundbreaking as the stars, writers, and producers will have you believe, but it’s not as repulsively schmaltzy or freaking terrible as the trailer and critics would make you think. Keep your expectations very low and give it a shot, but maybe wait for the DVD.
I went for free. Maybe that’s why I’m not mad. Well, not mad about the money, at least.
AND NOW THERE ARE SPOILERS. AND A RANT. EVACUATE.
Can we talk about the depiction of the final days of a cancer patient? They are not spent in a freaking boat, while the patient is cognizant and able to impart a few more meaningful words. When the Judge dies, and a Bit o Honey wrapper falls symbolically to the floor of the boat, I exclaimed, in a very loud whisper, “It doesn’t fucking happen like that!” Have Hollywood writers ever seen someone die of cancer? Have they ever sat at their bedside while the person slowly becomes less responsive, less aware? Where the fuck did we get this idea that this is how people die of terminal illnesses? “But T, it’s more poetic this way. Why does everything have to be realistic?” You ask. Well, because, you know, it’s fucking real life! Drives me crazy. Sorry not sorry.
See?! I am mad!
Also, just to clarify this, more to myself than to anyone else, it is more of a sign that I respect my favorite actor when I am able to criticize him. It is way more of a sign of respect than, say, if I were to just fall on my knees and worship him every time he breathes. So, Robert, if you’re reading this, I still love you. And that’s why I can’t lie to you.
And marry me.
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I’m T. Rudacille, author of the Eternity series. The first book in the series, The Shattered Genesis and the second book, The Bargaining Path, are available for FREE in the Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords stores, and The Shattered Genesis is also available in paperback on Amazon!