Grantland logo

Mistrial and Error: RDJ’s Messy ‘The Judge’ and the Highs and Lows of What’s New This Week

Looks at ‘The Judge,’ ‘Kill the Messenger,’ ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,’ and ‘Dracula Untold.’

At least a dozen movies are opening around the country this week. More than half of them are in The Judge. Not different genres, per se, just different movies. There’s the one in which greasy careerist Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) puts the brakes on lucrative defense-lawyering in order to be good and folksy; there’s the one in which he returns to his small Indiana hometown and winds up defending his estranged father — Judge Joe Palmer (Robert Duvall) — in a murder case.

There’s the one in which he resumes flirtation with his high school flame Samantha (Vera Farmiga), the Cool-Girl Ex Who Never (Ever) Left Town, and the one in which he and his equally estranged brothers, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong), bond over their mother’s recent death. And that’s not even accounting for the movie about the widowed judge himself, who’s secretly ailing, requiring snobby Hank to play caregiver. Is there time to mention the movie about Hank’s nasty divorce and relationship with his only-in-the-movies adorable tweenage daughter (Emma Tremblay), who’s never met Grandpa?

These stories could work in a single film. But in The Judge, they don’t. The studio knows this. A baffled friend has been sending me notes for weeks about how each TV ad is for a new movie. The only thing all these parts of the finished product have in common is Downey, who glides into each sequence as though the previous one hasn’t happened. Hank is smug and testy. As he hops into his sports car bound for his mother’s funeral, he berates his soon-to-be ex-wife for cheating on him. His put-downs are mean, but chummy. Then as he drives off from his modernist glass-and-metal fortress, his tone changes in response to a plea from the wife. “You wanna do something for me: Water the fucking hydrangeas!”

Back home in fictional Carlinville, Hank basically gets amnesia when it comes to the hurt he’s caused everyone in his past. But to be fair, they don’t seem to care — they’re just so glad he’s back! Within minutes of walking into Samantha’s waterfront restaurant (please don’t make me tell you what it’s called),1 Downey’s being bathed in whatever moonlight is spilling off Farmiga: It’s as if they’ve always been together. No one can hold a grudge against Hank because they’re already carrying his water.


1.

OK, OK! It’s Thyme by the River.

The Judge is maddening, and this is mostly why. There is no reason to like Hank. As a professional, he’s an asshole. As a man, he’s a brat. But the movie keeps stacking the scenes in his favor. Even when he’s wrong, he gets the last word. Watching Downey patronize his family and condescend to the goober attorney (Dax Shepard) that Judge Joe initially hires, I had the same feeling I did seeing Tom Cruise swoop into town and outwit everybody in Jack Reacher — the locals are mostly portrayed as dim and parochial, even tough, lunar-lit Farmiga. There’s a brief moment when Hank receives his comeuppance from Judge Joe. But that’s not permitted to stand. The father’s health is rigged so that the son retains the compassionate upper hand.

Most of The Judge is built on rough, sketchy writing (credited to Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque). (You know the movie’s in the creative basement when your hear that the no-nonsense prosecuting attorney’s name is Dwight Dickham, played by Billy Bob Thornton.) There’s a stab at sex farce and several whacks at family tragedy. But the director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) can’t do much with apples and oranges except find a banana to add to the mix. If an audience goes for this movie — there was big laughter and some sniffling the night I saw it — that’s due to Downey’s charisma. But his arrogance is miscalibrated here. It’s impossible to be a withering snob and a saint who suffers; to be Albert Brooks and Jack Lemmon.

The-Judge-1

Other stars can do more appealing peacocks: George Clooney and Brad Pitt come with a moral core; Denzel Washington gets away with being better than you because, well, he is, and part of what’s better is his sexiness. But those men can laugh at themselves. Downey’s shtick is really just laughing at the people around him. What’s funny to most Downey characters is that we’re not him. That persona is the engine of the Iron Man movies. Not only is his sleazy billionaire richer than we are, he’s also demonstrably more brilliant and puts that brilliance to superheroic use. When Downey stars in other movies, like this one and Due Date, he’s just a defensive, bitterly sarcastic version of his trust-fund burnout in Less Than Zero.

That sort of adolescent entitlement is where the movies are right now. It’s as if no one has any trust — in the material, the audience, themselves — to tell one story in an absorbing, complicated way. Some of this is the direct result of what happens when too many grown-ups have moved into fantasyland. No one knows what an adult looks like or how an adult behaves because no one wants to be one.

Some of it is the preponderance of television in our lives. Shapeless, lawless, beholden seemingly to no one, television as an entity is everywhere and everything. The movies feel beholden to it. The clanging plots and sloppy ideas and overpopulated, underutilized casts, the muscle-pulling pivots from comedy to drama, seriousness to schmaltz: This Is Where I Leave You and Men, Women & Children and now The Judge all feel like TV that television wouldn’t want.

Whatever is happening with Hollywood movies at the moment, you can feel it in The Judge. It’s not that it doesn’t know what kind of movie to be. It’s that it wants to be many movies, and fails at being even one of them. Hank’s been dredged in a batter of glibness, then deep-fried in a vat of need. One of the story’s father-son showdowns can be accurately reduced to I needed a hug and you never gave me one. It’s embarrassing to see the filmmakers trying to connect the Palmers’ dysfunction with the legal matters at hand.

As it turns out, the truth about the case is rather poignant. The movie could have done more with it. But the courtroom scenes are too much at either extreme. One minute Dobkin is doing To Kill a Mockingbird, the next it’s My Cousin Vinny.2 It doesn’t feel good to remember that 25 years ago, the moral and dramatic stakes were higher. Jessica Lange starred in Costa-Gavras’s Music Box as an attorney defending her father (Armin Mueller-Stahl) against charges that he was a Nazi who had worked in the death camps. That movie wasn’t perfect, but it had warmth and was serious with small spasms of human comedy. Lange and Mueller-Stahl acted from a place of deep emotional connection. And, crucially, the trial was structured with suspense. You cared about the case and what the verdict would do to that family. Who knows what The Judge is about or what’s important to it? More people are going to see it than will ever see Music Box. But if the movie is a hit, it’ll be one that’s getting away with murder.

♦♦♦


2.

And the twinkling music doesn’t stop, either; Thomas Newman’s score keeps humping your leg.

Kill-the-Messenger

Gary Webb, the journalist Jeremy Renner plays in Kill the Messenger, also believes he’s smarter than everyone. But he’s found himself in the midst of a scandalous story: It seems that the Central Intelligence Agency did little to stop the U.S. drug epidemic of the 1980s because it was in bed with the Nicaraguan contras, some of whom used the smuggling proceeds to arm themselves in their insurgency against the Sandinista government. Webb worked for the San Jose Mercury News and took his own life 10 years ago, after almost a decade of defending his work to both an aggressively skeptical national press and a chagrined CIA.

In 1995 and 1996, he wrote and reported on a devastating three-part series that blew the lid off those secret alliances, catching fire on the Internet at a time when the web carried a fraction of the content it does today. The stories were sensationally packaged and probably overreached. Their implication that the CIA put crack in South Central Los Angeles is a myth that still persists today. At its best, the movie dramatizes the ways in which control of the story gets away from Webb. It drops in on the newsrooms of the bigger, more powerful New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post, which defile Webb and debunk the stories rather than building on them. This stretch of Michael Cuesta’s movie is a lean paranoia thriller, with volleying telephone calls and the government closing in and tense meetings within different organizations, including at the Mercury News, about how to proceed with Webb’s work. But it takes an hour to get there, and the tension doesn’t last long enough once it does.

The screenplay is by Peter Landesman and is based on a pair of nonfiction books: Webb’s own Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion and Nick Schou’s Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb. It’s probably a miracle that Landesman located a two-hour movie in all that material. There’s one nicely done scene in the early going with Webb, convicted drug dealer “Freeway” Rick Ross (Michael Kenneth Williams), and Ross’s attorney (Tim Blake Nelson) in which Ross tells Webb that a cartel guy was also a CIA operative and Webb kind of can’t believe it. The comedy in their incredulity points to a different, possibly satirical film. But that’s just about the only humor this otherwise solemn movie can afford.

Webb’s pieces about harsh drug forfeiture lead to a busty, flirtatious Latina (Paz Vega) coming on to him in a diner to give him documents that point to a bigger story. For an hour, it looks as if Kill the Messenger might be one of those vast topical conspiracy dramas, like Traffic or Syriana, that’s more interested in how the conspiracy affects white people than how it affects everyone else. (There are parts here for Richard Schiff, Oliver Platt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Michael Sheen, Robert Patrick, Andy Garcia, and Ray Liotta.) It takes too long to make clear that Kill the Messenger is ultimately concerned with Webb’s heroism and downfall.

Along the way, clichés and obviousness litter the movie. When Webb sits down to start writing, he puts on the Clash while a montage plays of guns and soldiers’ faces and black men being locked up. There’s a shot of a camera clicking away at Webb while he’s on the go. Meetings with government officials turn ominous in a way that requires Renner to lower his head and make a face that asks, “How did I wind up in The Pelican Brief?” Just as I finished saying, They forgot the scary parking-lot sequence, the scary parking-lot sequence came.

Renner is consistently strong. He’s a character actor who, like Dustin Hoffman, hides in plain sight. Unlike Hoffman, he might never get the major acclaim he deserves. He doesn’t feel compelled to pull the stops out. He was just as alive as everybody else in American Hustle, but winning a scene didn’t appear to be his goal. There’s shaggy righteousness to Renner as Webb moves from bafflement to fear to anger to something morose. When the brightness goes out of the performance, the shading he uses is impeccable. One sequence at a journalism banquet is lit and decorated in a way that feels like the lining of a coffin. The movie wants very much to be a moral and ethical tragedy. And Renner, by that point, understands Webb to be a martyr participating in his own funeral.

It makes sense that Kill the Messenger works when it’s driven by the action of internal debate and journalistic backstabbing. Cuesta has spent a long time crafting intrigue on Showtime’s terrorism drama Homeland. He gives assurance to the scenes of people plotting their next moves. But the movie either needed to be told entirely from inside Webb’s point of view or he should be part of larger, more integrated work. Kill the Messenger has neither the artistry nor the athleticism to do both.

♦♦♦

Disappearance-Elenor-Rigby

I’ve written before that I’m not a fan of movies about parental suffering. They’re records playing at too slow an RPM and can bring out the worst in an actor. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is a parental dirge, too, but it’s a patient, eloquent one. It opens with a woman, Eleanor (Jessica Chastain), jumping off the Manhattan Bridge. She survives, but rather than back up to explain how she’s come to this, first-time writer and director Ned Benson moves forward to show you how she continues to live with herself. That’s the first side: Her.

Benson flips the album, and in the second half — Him — Eleanor’s husband, Conor (James McAvoy), tries to live without her. Benson’s staffed both halves with strong actors. William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert make perfect psychological and genetic sense as her parents; Jess Weixler is her younger sister. Eleanor starts taking classes, and a steely Viola Davis plays the professor. Ciarán Hinds is Conor’s frigid dad. Bill Hader and Nina Arianda work at the failing restaurant he owns.

The Weinstein Company acquired the film and released a conflated edition last month — Them — that was an hour shorter. It hung together. Nothing seemed to be missing, except everything that felt special in the two-sided version — its quiet and patience and searching emotionalism; the finesse and assurance of the acting; the sense that two lives were happening to you. Them was like reaching into a dryer and pulling out a shrunken delicate. It should never have gone in the wash in the first place.

I’m sensitive to the charge that Benson’s made a slow, callow, bourgeois movie and that it’s probably unfair to Conor’s side of things, that’s it ultimately not about enough. But I watched this movie — the longer, two-sided version, which is being released this weekend — in a state of captivation. I was seeing a new filmmaker, one with a smart eye and a talent for establishing and maintaining psychological intricacy. American movies are running perilously low on fresh, youngish talent. Who knows what Benson will do next. I just left his first movie desperate to experience the second one.

♦♦♦

Dracula-Untold

It’s quite a pronouncement to call your vampire movie Dracula Untold. After scores of movies, books, and television shows and millions of Halloween costumes, what else is there to tell? Lots, apparently. Drac’s agent obliged, and now he’s in what is basically 300 Games of Thrones. The story dares to prequelize Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, giving us Luke Evans as Transylvania’s Vlad III Tepes a.k.a. Vlad the Impaler a.k.a. Count Dracula and his transformation from warrior-prince to the immortal neck-biter also known as the Son of the Devil.

No one needed this story. Yet Mehmed the Conqueror (Dominic Cooper) attempts to conscript 1,000 Transylvanian boys to fight in his army — and, presumably, to keep him in bronzer, eyeliner, and designer haircuts, too. The conscripts include Vlad’s young son (Art Parkinson), so this work of tedious fan fiction forces a Faustian bargain: The old, cave-dwelling Roman emperor Caligula (Charles Dance) gives Vlad two days of superpowerful vampirism to gut the Turks and save the boys. If, at the end of 48 hours, Vlad has avoided the taste of blood, he gets his mortality back and can resume making stressless love to the missus (Sarah Gadon). If not, he’s avoiding the sun forever.

As a vampire, Vlad morphs into hundreds of CGI bats that mow down thousands of invading CGI Turks. He waves his arms and poses to conduct his own bat army (cue the eye rolls from Wayne Manor). The big showdown between Vlad and Mehmed relies on silver serving as vampire Kryptonite (cue the eye rolls from every werewolf in America). Most of the time, I found myself feeling like I was waiting for a turn with the gaming controls. Basically, it’s just depressing to hear Dracula or Caligula or whoever say things like, “The world’s fate hangs in the balance,” as if what Stoker or ancient history had always wanted was to write a Dungeon Siege tale. In the end, some ideas about faith, blasphemy, and mob rule get half-explored. There’s even a finale that sets up a sequel that looks so much better than the dull, starchy one we’ve just watched that you don’t know why they didn’t just make that. Why give us all this muffin when all anybody wants is the top?