Following the TIFF tradition of mixed to disappointing opening night films (The Fifth Estate, Looper, From the Sky Down), David Dobkin’s The Judge is a mediocre and laughably improbable courtroom drama propped up by an undeserved awards push for a cast acting beneath themselves. A bloated, dew-eyed 141-minute episode of “Law and Order,” the movie wastes the time and efforts of an exceptionable cast. But what more would you expect from the helmer of Wedding Crashers and Shanghai Knights taking on a poor man’s Grisham script written by a newcomer and a screenwriter with only Gran Torino to his name?
Well-tailored Robert Downey, Jr. oozes characteristic snark charisma as well-off Chicago-slick lawyer Hank Palmer. Hearing that his mother has died mid-trial, Palmer goes back to small town Indiana to join his estranged family’s side. After an expository-laden squabble with his cheating trophy wife (who has “an ass of a high school volleyball player”), Palmer is free to drive off and fool around (enter supporting female cast of Vera Farmiga and Leighton Meester). What begins as a miserable long weekend turns into an even more grueling few weeks as his father, Judge Joseph Palmer (played by Robert Duvall), gets into a bit of a legal pickle when a dead man’s blood is found on his prized vintage Caddy. You can see where this is going, right?
The plot is pretty paint-by-numbers — old issues get re-hashed, family skeletons get shaken out of the dusty closet, resolution happens after a ridiculous courtroom climax. The willful prodigal son, who skipped town unexpectedly after a Metallica concert, comes back in his father’s time of need and comes to term with his father’s and his own mortality while revisiting his brothers and left-behind first love…
When Palmer the Elder’s chosen attorney (a skittish Dax Shepard) steps down to nerves (he vomits before the preliminary hearing), it’s only natural that Palmer the Younger steps in as his attorney. Yup, you are reading that right. Now, I’m not that fluent in the nuances of Indiana legislature, but isn’t there some statute or other technical jargon alluding to conflict of interest that would bar a son from representing his father in a murder-manslaughter trial? Moving past other possible technical discrepancies, they bond slowly with Duvall easing his granite exterior chip-by-chip and Downey looking bit by bit further past his blatant narcissism.
Hank is full-blown Downey without the eccentric charm of Sherlock or reeling confidence of Stark. The Judge is stone-faced Duvall as an old school coot of a country judge. As the two Palmer boys who didn’t run off to the big city, Vincent D’Onfrio is a bloated teddy bear of a former high school star athlete and Jeremy Strong an 8 mm camera-clinging man-child (possibly on the spectrum, though that’s never fully addressed). Farmiga and Meester are decent props as Hank’s still-attractive high school girlfriend and the local flirty young bartender. Leeringly with lawyerly intent, Billy Bob Thornton steps in as a prosecutor with an axe to grind as a reminder of Palmer the Younger’s not so ethical legal practice of representing the highest bidders.
All in all, The Judge is disappointing but not unexpected. It’s fluff for your parents and Robert Downey Jr. fans, and will make half-decent background noise when it’s on TNT next year.