We gave it a B
It’s a surly morning on the set of The Judge. A diner has been constructed in a building that’s usually a quaint candle shop, and although it happens to overlook the craggy waterfall in Shelburne Falls, Mass., an unexpected summer downpour means that greenscreens must be placed over the windows so a sunnier version can be added later. Thunder grumbles above as water-drizzled crew members drone in and out of the cramped building, adjusting for myriad complications.
The best-laid plans often go awry. That theme runs throughout The Judge, a father-and-son legal drama starring Robert Downey Jr. as a big-city criminal-defense attorney who returns to his small-town home for his mother’s funeral after decades of estrangement from his father, a stern judge played by Robert Duvall. Both men have dedicated their lives to the law, but see themselves on opposite sides — until the old man is accused of a deadly hit-and-run. Again, the best-laid plans…
A few dozen extras playing diners look like they haven’t seen their waitress in a very long time. Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List) calls for more smoke in the room to add atmosphere, and then less smoke. Vincent D’Onofrio, who plays Downey’s hostile older brother, lingers near the doorway, head bowed, looking cranky and unapproachable. So no one approaches. Occasionally Duvall, sitting before the camera at the counter, barks to no one in particular, ”What the f—are we doing?”
Then Downey bounces in as if he just scratched a winning lottery ticket. It’s not like they were waiting for him — there’s still plenty of setup to go. But downtime becomes Downeytime as the actor, who’s co-producing The Judge with his wife, Susan, completely lifts the mood. That charisma you see on screen in the Iron Man movies? It’s for real. Call it Vitamin RDJ.
Downey wanders the diner, part cheerleader and part politician, high-fiving the crew, waving at the extras, teasing Kaminski, and clapping ”Bobby” Duvall on the shoulders to coax a tortoiselike smile from the acting legend. Then there’s D’Onofrio, still looming on the periphery. Downey, 5 foot 9, stands nose-to-chest with his 6-foot-4 bear of a costar, flexing up and down on his tiptoes. Downey whispers something, and D’Onofrio’s apparent somberness is swept away in a big belly laugh. The shot is ready, and the actors gather at the counter, where they’re alternately cold and furious with each other. But before that, Downey makes sure everyone is happy.
What did Downey whisper to D’Onofrio? ”I was telling him, ‘If I hadn’t started smoking when I was 9, I’d have been as tall as him,”’ the actor confides later, flashing a grin.
During a break between shots, Downey stops to watch the footage with Susan, his partner in the production company Team Downey. The Judge is their first feature, and she’s sitting behind a bank of video monitors in an adjacent room with director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers). A veteran of Silver Pictures, where she made Downey’s 2005 thriller Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and countless other action flicks, Susan is regarded as the steadying force behind her husband’s post-”dope fiend” (his term) comeback. They’ve been married since 2005, though he flirts with her like they’re just dating — and picks on her like they’re in grade school.
After fake-tripping over a river of cables, he calls out, ”Producer! Producer!” while snapping his fingers at ”the missus” (his term). ”I feel like this set is a hazard,” he says. ”The working conditions are draconian. Where’s my f—ing SAG rep?”
”Well, you’re one of the producers,” she says, advising him to file a grievance with himself. ”Hey, what do I tell you is the most satisfying thing about being a producer?”
Like a good student, he responds, ”When your adjustable hose works really well, so you can put out several fires at once.” She nods.
In fairness, she can also dish it out. When he’s asked if he ever plans to direct a movie himself, Downey hedges: ”Uhh…later.” But Susan quickly chimes in: ”When the boyish good looks wear thin.” For once, he has no retort.
At another point, the actor explains how emotional he gets when talking about The Judge‘s father-son conflict. ”How many times a week do I cry?” he asks his wife.
”I don’t know,” she says with a shrug. ”It depends how many times you talk about it…then multiply that times three.” That earns her a laugh and a ”touché” nod from him.
Downey keeps the mood high on set, but sparring with the missus is what maintains his own energy level. Susan has definitely built up a tolerance for Vitamin RDJ. But on tense days on set like this one, it doesn’t hurt to have an extra dose.