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Slick but superficial and overloaded with clichés, David Dobkin’s combination of familial reconciliation and courtroom fireworks resembles nothing more than a “very special episode” of a TV lawyer show—one made by David Kelley, perhaps. “The Judge” is entertaining enough, but in a shallow, manipulative fashion that leaves you feeling vaguely used at the end.

The movie does, however, provide meaty roles for its two leads. Robert Downey, Jr. (whose wife is one of the producers) plays Hank Palmer, a canny, unprincipled Chicago defense lawyer who specializes in getting sleazeballs off via whatever cheap trick he can come up with—a part that utilizes to the hilt the actor’s ability to exude smarmy charm while delivering quick-witted zingers. (Just think Tony Stark with a law degree from Northwestern, no less.) One morning, however, brings a double whammy: his wife (Sarah Lancaster) is preparing to divorce him, and he gets news that his mother has died. The latter prompts him to drive back to the Indiana hometown he hasn’t visited in years for the funeral.

There he’ll have to confront his estranged father Joseph, the crusty title character who’s sat on the bench for over forty years and greets Hank with an indifference than occasionally morphs into outright contempt. They’ll have to bond again, of course, but the catalyst comes when the elder Palmer is charged with deliberately running down an unsavory local ex-con (Mark Kiely) he’d once treated leniently in sentencing for threatening his girlfriend—a lapse that enabled the man to brutally murder her after a few weeks in the county lockup. When his local attorney (Dax Shepard) proves utterly incapable against Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), a seasoned prosecutor from Gary, Hank will have to take on the judge’s case and try to save him from the pokey. Joseph’s claims not to remember what happened despite evidence that it was his car that killed the victim, and his refusal to follow his son’s instructions, make the task all the more difficult.

This central aspect in the screenplay by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque (based on a story by Dobkin and Shenk) isn’t without virtues, and it provides Downey with plenty of opportunities not only to strut around smartly and exhibit the cunning that lies beneath the surface, but also to demonstrate his dramatic chops in scenes with Duvall. It also provides the older actor (playing considerably younger than his actual age) with the chance to shine. Duvall does the requisite crotchety act with aplomb, of course, but the part also demands him to show the character’s pain over his failing mind and body, and his does so unflinchingly, especially in a bathroom scene with Downey. If the scene turns squishy toward the close, as if Dobkin were fearful of challenging the audience overmuch, that’s typical of the whole film, which also culminates in a final courtroom revelation that ties together what happened on the highway on the night in question with long-ago events explaining the estrangement between father and son in all too pat a package.

What really hobbles “The Judge,” however, are all the ancillary tangents the script adds to this core, which among other things drags the picture out to nearly two-and-a-half hours. There’s the old high school flame of Hank’s (Vera Farmiga) with whom he clumsily rekindles a romance, even though at first he’s unknowingly enjoyed a brief moment with a bartender (Leighton Meester) who turns out to be her daughter—and the father’s identity isn’t a matter of record. Then there are Hank’s two brothers—Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), a tire-shop operator whose chance at a pro baseball career was ended by an accident that remains mysterious until late in the movie, and Dale (Jeremy Strong), a mentally-challenged young man who spends his time shooting film to add to the family’s collection of home movies. Both provide ample opportunity for Dobkin to recur to long-suppressed angers and lighten the mood by having the “Rainman”-like lad make inappropriate comments. Medical problems enter into the narrative, too, as also does Hank’s darling daughter (Emma Tremblay), who comes to town for a visit and elicits an outpouring of grandfatherly affection. Even a tornado—or at least the threat of one—makes an appearance. All of this burdens the picture with overmuch incident, as if the emotional baggage between Hank and Joseph weren’t enough for it to carry.

Still, Downey and Duvall provide some very strong moments, and though the rest of the cast are thoroughly overshadowed by them, D’Onofrio and Thornton have theirs too, even if they’re pretty much reduced to clichés. (The sneering, self-righteous Dickham, for example, is “characterized”—if that’s the right word—by a single quirk: bringing his own metal water-glass with him to court, which he ostentatiously opens up on several occasions.) Farmiga brings earthiness but little else to her role, and Strong is stuck in a part that would have been almost impossible not to reduce to caricature. The same thing applies to Shepard, who’s just walking comic relief, especially in a repeated bit about his squeamishness prior to entering the courtroom. Ken Howard, as a judge, Balthazar Getty, as a deputy, and Grace Zabriskie, as the dead man’s angry mother, all do reliable work. But it’s rather a shock to see David Krumholtz, who appears at the beginning and close of the movie as the exasperated prosecutor Hank comes up against in Chicago: he’s put on almost as much weight since “Numbers” as D’Onofrio has from his early days. But he still exudes the same haggard charm one recalls from his previous performances.

The technical aspects of “The Judge” are thoroughly professional. But while it’s nicely shot by Janusz Kaminski, it must be noted that the Massachusetts locations, with their rushing waterfalls and stores advertising thyme, do not prove a convincing stand-in for Indiana, though the brief shot of Downey driving past endless fields of corn is right on. Thomas Newman’s score accentuates the obvious.

So the verdict on “The Judge” is mixed. As a piece of pulp popular entertainment, it works reasonably well, and provides a vehicle for bringing together one of today’s major stars with one of the few real icons of cinema still working today. But ultimately its overlong mixture of judicial theatrics and sentimental family drama doesn’t amount to much.


What in the world has happened to Jason Reitman? After a quartet of excellent films—“Thank You for Smoking,” “Juno,” “Up in the Air” and “Young Adult”—he’s stumbled twice in succession, first with the decidedly labored romantic melodrama “Labor Day” and now with a ponderously didactic ensemble piece. “Men, Women & Children” is so determined to deliver a message about setting aside messaging devices and connecting with one another in person again that it doesn’t bother to create credible characters, situations or dialogue. One would like to think that it’s intended as satire, or at least a comedy; but it offers no evidence of that, remaining glum and glibly monitory throughout.

Like “Disconnect,” Henry-Alex Rubin’s similarly themed (and structured) film of last year, Reitman’s—adapted by him and Erin Cressida Wilson from a novel by Chad Kultgen and set in Austin, Texas—offers a collection of interlocking plot threads. One centers on a married couple, Don (Adam Sandler) and Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt), both of whom are unhappy and reach out via the Internet for a kind of companionship. He masturbates over porn, while she clicks onto a dating site, eventually linking up with an unnamed but receptive Dennis Haysbert. Meanwhile their fifteen-year old son Chris (Travis Tope) has become so addicted to Internet sex that he’s unable to react to real-life encounters, even when his sultry classmate Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia) comes on to him; he’s happy to exchange suggestive texts with her, but when it comes to performing in bed, he can’t.

Hannah is a high-school cheerleader who aims, with the help of her supportive mother Donna (Judy Greer), to develop an acting career by posting revealing photos on a website. Donna may consider the Internet her friend, but that’s certainly not the attitude of Patricia Beltmeyer (Jennifer Garner), the epitome of maternal protectiveness, who monitors all sites visited, as well as calls or texts received or sent, by her daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever). Brandy, a bright, sensitive girl, attracts the eye of handsome Tim (Ansel Elgort), who’s been so emotionally devastated by the departure of his mother for a new life—and marriage—in California that he’s left the school football team on which he was an all-star and does little anymore but play an Internet interactive game called Guild Wars. That worries his father Kent (Dean Norris), who’s so concerned about the boy that he attends Patricia’s parents group where he meets Donna, and they strike up a relationship that quickly takes a turn toward more than simple friendship. Tim and Brandy, meanwhile, start what must be—in light of Patricia’s obsessive surveillance—a clandestine teen romance. A final plot thread involves one of their classmates, anorexic Allison (Elena Kampouris) , who visits sites about how to get even thinner and becomes so besotted with another football hunk that she goes to bed with him, with predictable results that shock her parents (J.K. Simmons and Tina Parker).

Allison’s is only one of the parallel stories that take such a dark turn. Even more elaborate is that of Brandy and Tim, who’s devastated again when Kent limits his Internet access and Patricia simultaneously intervenes to break off his relationship with her daughter. That interference nearly causes a tragedy. On the other hand, Donna comes to realize how detrimental to her daughter’s future the website they’ve been employing can be, and her decision to close it down ruptures her relationship with Hannah. Inevitably, Don and Helen eventually find out about each other’s real and virtual infidelity, leaving them to consider whether they can continue their life together. Their son’s problems are apparently left unresolved.

Reitman and editor Dana E. Glauberman follow the twists and turns of all these narratives pretty clearly, never missing a chance to emphasize the theme of the alienation caused when people become so tied to their devices that they’re no longer able to communicate with their fellow human beings other directly. But just in case you don’t get the message, the picture adds a woebegone framing device in which shots of the Voyager spacecraft hurtling through space are accompanied by arch observations spoken by Emma Thompson, who points out how insignificant earth, along with the human race and the individuals who make it up, are in the cosmic scheme of things, and suggests that we all ought to be kinder to one another. Even if you quote Carl Sagan while delivering them, such comments are pretty vacuous, though at least Thompson’s delivery suggests a bit of a tongue-in-cheek attitude lacking in the rest of the picture.

Among the cast, Elgort (who suffers even more effusively than he did in “The Fault in Our Stars”) and Dever are easily the most affecting, while at the other end of the spectrum Garner overdoes the brutal prissiness of Brandy’s mother. Everyone else falls into the mediocre middle, though it’s at least nice to see that Sandler is still capable of a bit of understatement, and the reliable Greer adds a touch of authenticity to her portrait of a mother who’s entirely too compliant with her child’s wishes. Technically this is a polished product, with a convincingly realistic production design by Bruce Curtis and unfussy but effective cinematography by Eric Steelberg. People who object to subtitles might find the use of graphics of texts, tweets and social-media postings throughout a chore to deal with, but though tiresome they’re germane to the point the picture’s making.

But ultimately “Men, Women & Children” is banality posing as profundity, a sermon so heavy-handedly delivered that it probably won’t even stop bored viewers from checking their cellphones while it’s urging them not to.