Two films in current release caught our attention recently. One is a traditional attempt to mix a murder mystery with family dramatics; the other is anything but traditional in every respect. And while both merit attention and each has its share of flaws, the non-traditional one stands out as the far superior effort.
“The Judge” joins two great actors, Robert Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr., as the father and son who haven’t spoken for years when the wife/mother dies, causing them to be together for her funeral. Even there, and in the days that follow, they hardly speak. The son despises the father who is a hard-nosed, no-nonsense judge who has for years run their hometown through his courtroom edicts and sentences. The father disrespects the son, who is an ethics-challenged highly successful criminal defense attorney who has grown rich in the big city by representing shady characters who could afford his hefty fees.
The son also has two brothers (one afflicted with autism, the other a budding baseball star whose career was curtailed by an injury suffered in a car accident in which Downey’s character was the driver). Both idolize their father, even as they love their brother, who also has a precocious young daughter from a failed marriage. Thus is the stage set, or so it would seem, for a family drama, perhaps not unlike Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County”; but that isn’t the path this one takes. Instead, it turns into a quasi-murder mystery, as the Duvall character is suddenly charged with murder in the death of a man he had previously sentenced to prison. And, of course, the Downey character rises to the occasion to defend the old man, with a fairly predictable result, at least as to their relationship.
“The Judge” isn’t so much a bad film as it is an overdone one. Overdone as in excessively schmaltzy in the worst traditions of Hollywood, wherein every scene must be milked for every conceivable emotion and every plot device contrived to the most attention-grabbing result. And those flaws are amplified when the film doesn’t know when to end, with a few entirely unnecessary scenes added just to leave every character with a “moment.”
“The Judge” could have been a good film. In portraying an old-fashioned jurist in the form of the town’s conscience, the juxtaposition with a modern-day me-first super-achiever could have made for an intriguing drama, maybe even a morality play. And a few scenes do capture that potential. But they quickly give way to the excesses previously noted, before a kind of deus ex machina brings the proceedings to a close. In terms of contrivances, let’s just say this one isn’t subtle.
“Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is as unconventional as “The Judge” is traditional. Written and directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, it stars Michael Keaton as a has-been actor whose main claim to fame was the series of films he made as the crime-fighting superhero with the film’s title name. But Keaton’s character turned down the chance to play the character in the third sequel (“Birdman 4”), and his career had been downhill ever since.
Now, with a play in production, one that he has adapted from his favorite author, and is directing and starring in, he is seeking to re-establish his credentials as a star, or to at least reclaim some justification for his life, what with a failed marriage, a precocious daughter with whom he is trying to re-connect (or maybe connect with for the first time), and an angry lover who may or may not be carrying his child as added blots on his unrealized dreams.
If you have seen any of Gonzalez Inarritu’s previous features (“Amores Perros,” “21 Grams,” “Bable,” “Biutiful”), you know that this is a serious film-maker who would never think to make a film for the masses or seek to leave everyone feeling good after they had seen it. So don’t see “Birdman” if you want purely escapist entertainment. This film, billed as a dark comedy, will leave you shaken and thinking long after you leave the theater. And what you might be thinking about is how difficult it is to find a way to matter or to claim some sense of dignity in the struggle to survive.
Yes, it, too, has its flaws, with several scenes excessively drawn (for either comic or dramatic effect), and with a few plot twists that are less believable than they probably should be. But the film features terrific performances from a stellar cast (in addition to Mr. Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough and Zach Galifianakis) and remarkable cinematography of Broadway’s theater district and its inner darkness.
In the end, “Birdman” is unsettling and uncertain. It may not be a great film, but it’s a film to see nonetheless.
See “The Judge” to feel good. See “Birdman” to ponder why you don’t.