The American Drama has become something of an anomaly, less and less a fixture of modern movie house entertainment, and more often lost within the great unwashed independent film market.
The movie houses have no time for the simple 'theater of realism' established by the great American playwrights like O'Neill on the theatrical stages of the early 20th century. There used to be nothing more exciting than the illusion of watching reality happen on the stage in front of you as if a fourth wall was removed. But American cinema, now jammed with behemoth superhero movies and animated spectacles of love-lorn anthropomorphized non-humans, has no time for films filled with, well, just people.
Fortunately The Judge, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall proves the American Drama is just as exciting as it always was.
Ironically, it took an actor who's played a superhero in his last five outings to make this ordinary story happen. Produced by Downey Jr. and his wife Susan through their "Team Downey" production company and written by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, The Judge appears like a simple dysfunctional family drama, until it devolves into a harrowing battle of father-son bullying that would make any self-respecting Greek dramatist proud.
Tense and clever, witty and brutal, the script allows a tour de force for two of our great American actors. We watch the deconstruction of these characters' carefully built lives as they are forced to reveal their painful truths to each other. It also shows why they hid so carefully behind their powerful impenetrable personalities.
"I wasn't going to let someone else play this part," Downey said at a recent screening in Beverly Hills. "Then I thought; 'what if we got one of the great American actors to play the other part?"
Robert Duval, who was sitting next to him, brought the house down when turned and said; "How may guys did you talk to before me?" After the laughter subsided Duvall chimed in quickly "I'm glad you stopped with me."
Downey has matured into such an elegant performer that his light-hearted execution of Tony Stark in the last five films featuring Iron Man might make you forget what an authentic and honest performer he is. His multiple nominations and wins in every award roster speak for themselves. Duval, a six-time Academy nominee and one-time winner, as well as multiple wins across the board in every other award possibility over six decades of work reminds us he's backed his way into becoming a screen legend. Yet this is a title one becomes sure he'd reject after listening to him discuss his craft.
"The most sincerest journey is from ink to behavior," he says. "Talk and listen, listen and talk and don't cheat it. And you'll be rewarded around the corner with something more complex."
Director David Dobkin remarked how amazed he's been by people coming out of the woodwork and sharing stories with him about difficult parents they've had, and how cathartic this film was for them.
Charming and funny in person, Downey Jr. kept the discussion light with his wit and self-deprecating remarks next to a colleague he clearly admires. "Bob understands the simplicity of acting and I was just trying to follow his lead and not screw up the scene," Downey Jr. said as Duvall insisted that wasn't the case.
The Judge pulls no punches and brings this father and son team into difficult scenes, one so raw that Duvall now famously rejected the script over it. "I didn't want to do it," he said. "I didn't want to be seen like that." That's when Downey Jr. picked up the mic and turned to him. "What brought you back to it?' Downey Jr. asked. "My wife and my agent," Duvall said to our laughter. "They said to do it. I looked at it again and said -- they're right."
The Judge joins a powerful body of work of American drama that is harrowing and healing, real and Olympian at the same time. It reminds us why we seek out theater and film to begin with; it helps us process and work through our own buried feelings by watching the heavy weights battle it out before us, realistically, as if a fourth wall had been removed and we were lucky enough to just be sitting there by accident and watch.
The Judge opens nation wide on October 10th.