It was announced to day that the opening film of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival will be The Judge. Starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall as estranged father and son whose lives are thrown back together when honestly, you've seen a movie before and can probably connect the dots, and directed by David Dobkin, the film will kick off TIFF on September 4.
That TIFF would select such a seemingly middlebrow movie to kick off its festival isn't necessarily a surprise. While commonly cited as one of the kickoff events for Oscar Season (though it's been increasingly threatened by Telluride on that front), the Toronto Film Festival is both bigger and more mainstream-friendly than your average film festival. And there isn't much thematic continuity in their choices for opening night films from year to year. The previous four TIFF-opening films were:
- The Fifth Estate, Oscar-bait in ambition but savaged by critics and an unambiguous bomb when it opened in theaters.
- Looper, a critical and commercial success, though never really an awards play.
- From the Sky Down, a documentary about U2 that didn't make much of a dent.
- Score: A Hockey Musical, because: Canada.
So in that sense, The Judge isn't so much out of character for a Toronto opening berth. But it's certainly not an inspiring choice, if the film's trailer is anything to go by.
That trailer is the 1990s-est thing you will see outside of BuzzFeed today. Movies used to be a lot more like this back then, seemingly lifted from the pages of a screenwriting book, where the flawed/damaged/hubristic hero (often a lawyer) was faced with a call (often a literal call, like from a phone) to travel far from his home (often to the midwest) in order to face down the demons of his past and reconcile with an estranged person that you just might say is himself (often represented by a parent). The Judge IS that movie, and it doesn't mind announcing that fact, in flat, unambiguous terms. Let's take this thing step by step, shall we?
The Wire's Guide to Ham-Fisted Character Beats in The Judge Trailer
0:05 - "The infamous Hank Palmer. The jaded lawyer with no respect for the law." [Robert Downey Jr. as Hank Palmer pees on the leg of opposing counsel.]
0:10 - "How does it feel knowing every person you represent is guilty?" "It's fine. Innocent people can't afford me." [RDJ throws trash in trash can. He doesn't miss. He never misses. Except for how he misses being a good person.]
0:35 - Daughter: "So Grandpa Palmer's dead too?" RDJ: "No, Grandpa Palmer's dead to me. It's like a figure of speech." Daughter: "Sounds complicated." [No, it does not.]
0:40 - RDJ: "Trust me, nobody wants to go to Carlinville, Indiana." ["I built these walls of stone..." croons the soundtrack.]
0:48 - RDJ: "We can barely stand the sight of each other." [Robert Duvall gives his son RDJ a no-look handshake.]
1:00 - Title card: "THE SECRETS OF OUR PAST" [I'm listening ...]
1:08 - Title card: "BECOME THE TRIALS OF OUR LIVES" [...OHHHHH.]
1:22 - Robert Duvall, a.k.a. The Judge, to RDJ: "I wish I liked you more." [Father and son walk in opposite directions from parked car. RDJ dons his big-city sunglasses to hide his feelings.]
1:29 - "You're a lawyer. He is your father. You leave now, you will regret it." [Vera Farmiga, as the small-town bartendress/advice-giver/probably love interest with untamed small-town hair.]
1:32 - "You're a shined-up wooden nickel, Mr. Palmer." [This is Billy Bob Thornton, certainly, as opposing counsel. Oh, Robert Duvall is on trial for maybe a hit-and-run?]
1:45 - RDJ: "I have memories of us, then I don't. Why?" [Robert Duvall closes his eyes as he experiences the guilt of an emotionally withholding dad.]
1:50 - Robert Duvall a.k.a. The Judge: "Was I tough on you? Yes. I did what I thought was right!" [Shot of RDJ's daughter hugging her daddy to illustrate the contrast of parenting styles.]
1:55 - "In my experience, Hank, sometimes you gotta forgive in order to be forgiven." [Vincent D'Onofrio doesn't appear onscreen to say this line, and subsequently he's the only cast member not credited as an Academy Award winner or nominee.]
2:02 - Baseball. Family. (His mom?) America.
2:03 - Robert Downey Jr., no longer wearing a big-city suit or shades but rather a Metallica t-shirt probably found in a box of his old teenage clothes, rides his bike down an Indiana country road, arms outstretched, having freed himself from his past.
2:06 - Robert Duvall a.k.a. The Judge: "You and I are finally done." RDJ: "Oh we're not done." [Title card: "The Judge"]
additional reporting and GIF-making by Kevin O'Keeffe