It seems unlikely that director David Dobkin, best known for the hit comedies “Shanghai Knights” and “Wedding Crashers,” would take on the drama “The Judge,” starring heavyweights Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall.
Except it's not. “I just love performance. It's what made me a movie director,” he says. Initially, Dobkin attended New York University aiming to be a writer ( “The Judge” is based on a story he co-wrote), but acting classes turned him on to guiding and shaping performances.
Now, working with two of the best in a film about a defense attorney who returns to his childhood home where his estranged father, the town’s judge, is suspected of murder, he says, “It's like watching athletes take the field.”
With “The Godfather,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Tender Mercies” to his credit, Duvall has long been regarded a great actor. Despite his popularity, Downey is not necessarily spoken of in the same terms.
“There's no question he's a genius. He sees the world differently from other people,” says Dobkin. “He sees all kinds of little bits of behavior and detail and nuance and brings that to the roles.”
Dobkin at first worried that a star of Downey's stature would come on set and act big – “tear the wallpaper off the wall.” But Downey made subtle, sophisticated choices.
“At the time I wanted him to be in it, I was thinking, 'I haven't seem him do this in forever,'” says Dobkin. “Then I tried to figure out if he's ever done this, as far as him being the lead and going through a deep, cathartic role,” he adds. “I feel like you get closer to Robert in this film than almost anything he's ever done.”
To protect his actors' performances, Dobkin deliberately let the movie run a little long, 141 minutes, inspired by the wedding sequence in “The Deer Hunter.”
“To stay inside of a scene that long and just know that it's going to hold you in there,” he says. “Not looking away is part of the power.”
Of course, the studio tried to get him to cut, to take out scenes that didn't drive the plot. But Dobkin insisted he would lose the richness of character if he did.
“There's a tipping point to a movie where you get to know the characters really well,” he says. “There's a moment when it just shifts over. I don't know when it happened or how it happened. Somehow I got invested and now I'm in.”
IF YOU GO
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga
Written by Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque
Directed by David Dobkin
Running time 2 hours, 21 minutes