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The 39th Toronto Film Festival got underway Thursday night with the world premiere of Warner Bros.’ The Judge at Roy Thomson Hall. David Dobkin‘s drama stars Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall as a son and father who have never really gotten along, but who begin to bond when the son, a hotshot lawyer, begins representing the father, who is facing murder charges for allegedly killing a man with his car and then fleeing the scene. The film, which will be released nationwide on Oct. 10, received a warm ovation that became a standing ovation when a spotlight was shined on the film’s principal talent — among whom are also Vera Farmiga and Vincent D’Onofrio — as the credits rolled.
As is also the case with the Cannes Film Festival, the opener at Toronto is not necessarily expected to be an awards contender, but must be a crowd-pleaser. Last year’s Toronto opener, the Julian Assange biopic The Fifth Estate, proved to be neither. This year’s, The Judge, certainly engaged and resonated with the gathered crowd (it got laughs and sniffles in all the right places throughout its 141 minutes) and could do well at the box office (although it has been years since Downey starred in a non-franchise film like this one, so it’s hard to predict that with confidence). But even still, it may face an uphill climb in the awards arena.
Why? Because films that click with Academy members are usually about matters of social significance, not smaller-scale focus such as family strife and reconciliation. Moreover, Downey and 83-year-old Duvall, as good as they are in the film as individuals and as scene partners — their chemistry might be attributable to two prior collaborations, The Gingerbread Man (1998) and Lucky You (2007) — are essentially adhering to their screen personas: the former playing a preening, slick wisecracker with a heart of gold, and the latter portraying a steely, taciturn, explosive grump whose shield ultimately cracks. Academy voters tend to reward actors who stretch themselves further than that.
That being said, The Judge — a passion project of Downey and his wife, Susan Downey, a producer on the film, as well as of Warners, which has pushed it hard — could still factor into the awards season, perhaps as a Golden Globe contender. Indeed, it strikes me as just the sort of thing to which the Hollywood Foreign Press Association would gravitate. And, in my humble opinion, it would not be undeserving of that sort of recognition.
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