Plants must be watered
In an early scene, lawyer Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) tells his wife to “water the f****** hydrangeas”, as he gears up for an impending divorce. While it’s easy to dismiss the line as inconsequential, some reading up reveals that hydrangea plants, unless well maintained, break easily. As the movie progresses, you realise that David Dobkin (director and co-writer) uses the flower reference as symbolic of relationships. Hank’s mother is shown to have been found dead by the hydrangeas. When Hank is forced to return from his high-flying career in Chicago to the modest Carlinville in Indiana to attend his mother’s funeral, you see that his relationship with his family, mainly his father Joseph (Robert Duvall), is fragile. Water the hydrangeas, Hank!
His plans to return to Chicago are put on hold when he is forced by circumstances to take on the unpleasant task of defending his father in a murder trial. A courtroom drama that’s also a whodunit, the film’s true story is the one in the background — an exploration of the volatile relationships between Hank, his father, and his brothers (Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong). The refreshingly light, almost careless, treatment of tumultuous emotions is particularly heart-warming. As Hank cleans up the mess made by an accidental bowel movement caused by his father’s terminal illness, his daughter (Emma Tremblay) wants to know what’s happening inside the bathroom. “Just cleaning up a leaking sink,” he says, as his father grins in embarrassment. In another scene, when Hank tells his daughter that he will be lonely after his divorce, she retorts, “But divorced daddies always get younger mummies”. When Hank asks his cancer-stricken dad if he believes in god, he says, “I’m 72 with stage 4 cancer. What choice do I have?” Such little gems are all over the film.
A serious storm strikes Carlinville, symbolic of the brewing showdown between Hank and his father. They confront each other with their insecurities. “Where were you when I graduated? I came first in my class!” roars Hank. His father, who maintains that everything he ever did was always for Hank’s good, ends the repartee simply with a, “You’re welcome.” The storm passes, and you realise the worst between the two is over.
The Judge ’s real problem is its attempt to handle too many subplots. It runs for a solid 141 minutes, and needn’t have if the story had been reined in to its core plot. Even Hollywood, it seems, can’t resist the temptation of a love story on the side.
Robert Downey, Jr. is understandably comfortable playing a character that seems like a watered down Tony Stark, with all his amorality, arrogance and acerbic retorts.
It’s a warm film no doubt, but as you walk out of the theatre, you can’t shake off the notion that The Judge could’ve been better. You want to get hold of David Dobkin and say, “Order! Order!”