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Film review: ‘The Judge’ — pissing all over legal accuracy

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Lawyers in the audience will struggle not to throw their mega–buckets of popcorn at the screen

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Robert Downey Jr may well be Hollywood’s current highest earning screen monkey, but he will forever be associated with real life courtroom dramas.

Before Downey — now 49 — landed on his feet and the Marvel Comic film franchise that has given a grateful cinema-going public the Iron Man trilogy, he was a renowned Hollywood bad boy. Downey racked up a string of drugs offences in the early 2000s, resulting in at least six months’ jail time.

Having put substance abuse behind him — and topping Forbes Magazine’s list of highest paid film stars — Downey now feels confident enough to throw his own cash at a fictional courtroom drama, co-producing “The Judge”.

He could have done us all a favour by splurging on a lifetime supply of Charlie instead.

Courtroom tales have featured prominently in Hollywood’s repertoire well before the sign itself went on the hill. Everyone wants to have a pop at being Atticus Finch … or his evil twin.

And it is the latter that Downey’s character of Hank Palmer is in the mould of in The Judge. He’s a stereotypical white-collar crime defence attorney, with fees presumably scrapping the $1,000-an-hour level as he out-manoeuvres and bullies inadequate prosecutors in their bid to send his wealthy money-laundering and embezzling clients for a spot of porridge.

Indeed, he literally pisses all over one of the state’s bumbling lawyers in an early scene.

But Chicago-based Palmer’s confidence and life is shaken when first his mother pegs out and then his father — a small town judge in Indiana (played by renowned actor Robert Duvall) — is accused of murder. The victim is just the sort of trailer trash one expects, with strong suggestions that Duvall’s judge never forgave himself for handing the scum a short jail sentence 20-odd years before, only for the violent yokel to drown his girlfriend on release.

Hank — who, funnily enough, like Downey — had a history of reckless behaviour as a teenager and a tricky, to say the least, relationship with his old man, agrees to defend papa.

Lead co-writers Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, and director David Dobkin spent a lot of time in the cliché shop when bashing out this two-and-a-half hour marathon.

Obviously the last thing lawyer cinema-goers should expect when stumping up their tenners for a courtroom drama is close attention to legal detail. But “The Judge” goes the extra mile in shunning verisimilitude.

Even skipping over the intriguing question of whether family members can act for each other in US criminal trials, there are so many howlers in relation to basic procedure in “The Judge” that lawyers in the audience will struggle not to throw their mega–buckets of popcorn at the screen.

Disclosure of crucial prosecution evidence is sprung on the defence halfway through trial, key witnesses are allowed to ramble and speculate while in the box as a supposedly harsh but fair judge looks on silently. And perhaps most entertaining of all, father and son reach a climatic tearful reconciliation while the latter is leading the former through examination in chief.

All of which might be forgiven if the film itself were any good, which it isn’t. It is flabby, indulgent, predictable and packed with so many knowing references to scenes from other films that the director might has well have popped up and said “see how clever I am”.

The only entertainment this judge derived was totting up just how many bodily fluids the writers and director managed to spray over the screen.

Verdict: Anyone with a weak stomach and a keenness for legal procedure accuracy should avoid.

Score: 2.5 out of 5

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