"The Judge," the official opening night film of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, isn't a movie that critics will easily embrace. It's an unwieldy, somewhat overlong hybrid mix of legal procedural and family drama that, by the simplicity of its title, evokes memories of that bygone era when John Grisham adaptations such as "The Client" and "The Firm" ruled multiplexes.
But "The Judge" is also a crowd-pleaser -- funny, suspenseful and sometimes quite moving -- anchored by a number of fine performances, particularly Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall playing an estranged father and son working things out the hard way. In one scene, mid-film, Downey and Duvall turn a howling tornado into an afterthought, a testament both to the ferocious power of this duo and director David Dobkin's occasional penchant for melodrama.
Reactions from those exiting the cavernous Roy Thomson Hall diverged almost as wildly as some of the movie's jarring tonal shifts. One woman walked out on King Street still dabbing her eyes. Her companion mimed putting a gun to her head and pulling the trigger, though it was unclear whether she was reacting to the film or her friend's tears.
Dobkin introduced the movie and its cast before a near-full house, calling out Vera Farmiga, Vincent D'Onofrio and Dax Shepard, before making way for Downey, who he called "a man with his finger in the socket of inspiration."
Downey definitely believes in "The Judge," his first straight-ahead drama since "The Soloist" in 2009. It's clear from interviews that he's proud of the film, and not just because his wife, Susan, produced it. Behind the scenes, Warner Bros. publicity executives are taking note of the early reviews praising Downey's and Duvall's work and mulling ways to turn the praise into an effective awards campaign.
For "The Judge" to make headway with the academy, though, it will need a strong commercial run. Last year at Toronto, Ron Howard's racing movie "Rush" earned a fair amount of love from audiences, but its middling box office derailed its Oscar campaign before the season even began.
Will "The Judge" suffer a similar fate? For the moment, the verdict remains out.