Toronto: Warner Bros Gets Thumbs-Up Verdict As ‘The Judge’ Opens TIFF With Emotion-Packed Drama

“I feel like I was sucker-punched, but it was a happy punch,” Robert Downey Jr. told me after the Toronto Film Festival’s opening-night movie The Judge. At the Montecito restaurant after-party, the  star and his wife Susan Downey, who was one of the producers of the project, admitted they had not seen the film before in such a large venue as Roy Thomson Hall, where the October 10th Warner Bros release had its world premiere Thursday night.

Downey admitted to tearing up at least five times watching the film tonight. I sat pete_hammond_300x100near the cast and noticed that co-star Dax Shepard was a complete emotional mess the minute the lights came up and the audience stood to applaud. Susan Downey agreed with me that if audiences — particularly adult filmgoers who don’t necessarily rush to movies on the first weekend — show up to support the film it will mean more major studios might be willing to do this kind of project, increasingly a rare species among the majors. I would certainly hope so for this fine and compelling legal drama dealing with the dysfunctional relationship between a lawyer son (Downey Jr) who becomes the defense attorney for his father, a veteran judge (Robert Duvall), on trial for  murder. Complicating matters is the father, who just lost his wife, reveals to his son he is suffering from cancer.

For anyone who has been through this with aging parents, The Judge is a devastating experience. I found myself at times, too, an emotional wreck — particularly "The Judge" Premiere - Arrivals - 2014 Toronto International Film Festivalduring a bathroom scene where Downey must help Duvall after he has collapsed. In the age of studio tentpole strategies promoting large-scale comic book movies — Downey is obviously no stranger to that — it’s nice to see an old fashioned family drama creep into the system. Downey gives full credit to his wife for making this happen and also believes that if it works, there will be more opportunities from the major studios for such adult fare. It would certainly be welcome to those of us in the post-Clearasil demographic..

The key reason it works so well is the extraordinary chemistry and acting turns by the two Roberts, Downey and Duvall. In introducing the film — directed by David Dobkin (The Wedding Crashers) in a major change of pace — Downey called his co-star a “legend amongst legends.” Both would richly deserve Oscar nominations for their work here. And the suppoorting cast is uniformly fine as well. Despite his enormous success in the Iron Man  and Avengers  franchises, Downey’s pure talent is on such a high level it is a shame there aren’t more opportunities in major studio movies like"The Judge" Premiere - Red Carpet - 2014 Toronto International Film Festival the one he is afforded here. Few actors working today have more natural ability.

I was thinking that the other day when writing a tribute to the late Richard Attenborough, who directed Downey in Chaplin. That performance should have won this star an Oscar. The Judge‘s Oscar chances are likely directly tied to its commercial prospects and that will depend on the older audience turning out for a film I’m sure they will find a rewarding experience. Warner Bros distribution head Dan Fellman (Warners made the film with Village Roadshow) told me he certainly hopes they will do just that for this movie. The studio is presenting three of its fall releases at Toronto, including Shawn Levy’s dysfunctional-family dramedy This Is Where I Leave You and Alcon’s The Good Lie, which Fellman says gets to him every time he sees it.

Warner Bros’ Sue Kroll says this is a very busy time for the studio. I asked her why they decided to release Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper in a limited Oscar-qualifying run at Christmas after she had previously told me it was being held for next year. “We saw the film and saw how good it was, so it just made sense to do a qualifying run and go wider in January,” she said. She also pointed out the powerful performance of star Bradley Cooper. It just continues to make this year a particularly tough one in Oscar’s lead-actor category. Of course this strategy worked well for Eastwood in the past, since both his Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby and Oscar-nominated Letters From Iwo Jima followed the same release pattern.

"The Judge" Premiere - Arrivals - 2014 Toronto International Film FestivalTIFF’s opening-night films have been a little spotty in the past, but hopefully The Judge will overcome that jinx. Last year, DreamWorks had the slot for its Julian Assange drama The Fifth Estate, but it died a quick death. (Previously, opening nights had been reserved generally for home-bred Canadian films.)  The Judge is one of several Oscar prospects grabbing world premieres here this week, including Jason Reitman’s Men, Women And Children, Focus Features’ Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory Of Everything, and The Weinstein Co.’s St. Vincent.

And there are a few prospects still without distributors which hope the Toronto boost will propel them into the race. Those include 99 Homes, which has won wide praise already in Venice and Telluride but is holding its last big sales push for Toronto, where the rest of the buyers will see it. Then Kevin Costner is hoping to finally nail down a distributor for his powerful and pertinent Black And White, a project he is invested in personally and financially. Also, Jennifer Aniston is said to be terrific in Cake, another acquisition title here that could get a quick turnaround in time for Oscar season. In fact there are many big names involved in movies up for grabs here, including Richard Gere as a NYC homeless man in Time Out Of Mind,  Michael Douglas as an evil dude harassing and stalking Jeremy Irvine in The Reach, and Ethan Hawke as an alcoholic drone pilot based in Vegas in the fascinating Good Kill.

The list goes on and on in this festival of festivals boasting over 300 movies and counting. We can’t see them all, but we can try.

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