Robert Downey Jr. certainly upped the star power of the opening night of the Toronto International Film Festival Thursday with the world premiere of The Judge, the father-son relationship drama he stars in opposite Robert Duvall.
While the annual Canadian confab often draws major Hollywood talent looking for audience love, until recently the festival previously dedicated its opening night to Canadian films. That changed two years ago when Sony Pictures opened the Joseph Gordon-Levitt-starring Looper, followed in 2013 by the world premiere of the Wikileaks drama The Fifth Estate.
The increased star power seems to align with Toronto’s new attitude as the scene-setter for the fall movie-going season. While in previous years the festival was willing to acquiesce when films screened at Venice or Telluride ahead of its premiere in its town, the organizers got tough in its 39th year: As an attempt to combat the encroachment of other festivals, it declared that any movie that debuts elsewhere before Toronto will not be given prime screening slots in the festival’s first four days.
It’s an issue that has been discussed wildly in the media and was brought up during the opening night remarks by The Judge director David Dobkin. “I think what you guys did was right,” he said. “When it’s a world premiere, it’s a world premiere.”And so with Downey, Duvall, and other cast members such as Vincent D’Onofrio, Vera Farmiga, Dax Shepard, and Jeremy Strong on hand, the film debuted to an almost packed house at the roomy Roy Thompson Hall. Downey, whose wife Susan produced the film, took the time to introduce Duvall—a man he clearly admires and whom he referred to as “a legend among legends.”
The 2 1/2-hour film centers on hot-shot Chicago lawyer Hank Palmer (Downey’s) and his reluctant return to his small hometown in Indiana to defend his morally superior father (Duvall), a county judge, who’s on trial for murder.
The audience was rapt and there were many tears shed during the screening, which concluded with a standing ovation for the cast. But early reviews have been middling, touting the strong performances by both Downey and Duvall but faulting the film’s plodding directing and awkward tonal shifts. Awards season is unlikely to be in the cards for this film, but if the amount of sniffles heard in the room are any indication, it could have a very healthy run at the box office when it opens nationwide on Oct. 10.