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'The Judge': Well-acted but guilty of sentimentality, reviews say

'The Judge': Well-acted but guilty of sentimentality, reviews say
Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall and Dax Shepard in "The Judge." (Claire Folger / Warner Bros.)

Movie critics have reached their verdicts on "The Judge," the new courtroom drama starring Robert Downey Jr. as a hotshot lawyer who comes to the defense of his estranged father, a prominent small-town jurist charged with murder (played by Robert Duvall).

The film is earning decidedly mixed reviews, with many critics finding director David Dobkin guilty of sentimentality and an overstuffed plot. On the other hand, Downey and Duvall have made a compelling case with their strong performances.

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The Times' Kenneth Turan says the duo's "powerful symbiotic acting is the key reason to see this film. … Duvall and Downey create a memorable mutual antipathy with echoes that go back as far as Raymond Massey squaring off against James Dean in 'East of Eden.'"

On the other hand, Turan writes, "this vivid and volatile core is often undercut by a weakness for middle-of-the-road sentiment and a desire to be all things to all people." Ultimately, "'The Judge' could have been a better film, but [Duvall and Downey] provide real and compelling reasons to see the one we have."

The Associated Press' Jake Coyle similarly writes, "Dobkin's film doesn't leave a melodramatic stone unturned, adding to its courtroom drama a sentimental tsunami of story lines." He also says that "the considerable appeal of seeing two fine actors as perfectly opposite each other like Duvall and Downey — one a rigid old cowboy, the other a manic pinball — is limited by the film's ceaseless heart string-pulling."

Even so, Coyle says, it's "a perpetually watchable film in that lazy-afternoon-cable-movie kind of way. If 'The Judge' proves anything, it's that talented, likable actors like Downey, Duvall, [Vincent] D'Onofrio and [Vera] Farmiga can keep a mediocre movie humming."

The New York Times' A.O. Scott says "The Judge" is populated by "fine actors encouraged to graze in a meadow overgrown with thickets of plot and clumps of easy sentimentality." Among them is Duvall, "the only reason to take an interest in this movie." His titular role is "a collection of personality traits in search of a coherent character, which Mr. Duvall, by dint of sheer professionalism, comes very close to supplying."

Otherwise, Scott says, the film has "enough dramatic incident for three movies, none of them terribly original," and it adds up to "a sprawl of narrative that is as unconvincing as the suspiciously sprawl-free, nostalgia-tinged town where it all takes place."

The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips says the movie works about half the time: "Of the 141 minutes in 'The Judge,' roughly 70 work well, hold the screen and allow a ripe ensemble cast the chance to do its thing, i.e., act. The other 71 are dominated by narrative machinery going ka-THUNKITA-thunkita-thunkita. This is the same sound a clothes dryer makes when a half-dozen John Grisham hardcovers are tossed in with an iron-plated movie star and 30 pounds of rocks."

USA Today's Claudia Puig finds "The Judge" to be "well-acted, with some occasional moments of clever dialogue, but the story is plodding, predictable and tension-free. If the essential premise doesn't work, it doesn't matter what terrific actors are cast."

The movie, Puig writes, "had decisive potential. But a weak script, lack of subtlety and tonal inconsistencies impede what might have been a powerful family drama."

Finally, the San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle has a suggestion for how to approach the film. He writes: "Take 'The Judge' on its own terms, as a touching exploration of a father-son relationship, and you may be disappointed. Honest in some ways, it also has just enough schmaltz to make viewers pull back precisely when they're supposed to surrender fully."

But as a display of acting, "this is a very good film for [Duvall and Downey], a rich and rare showcase for Duvall, 83, and an opportunity for Downey to remind people that he's really an actor, and not just a blockbuster fixture."

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