There’s a really good movie buried somewhere within The Judge, I’m sure of that. There’s plenty of enjoyment in watching Robert Downey Jr. spar with Robert Duvall, but you often wish the situations they were in happened to be different…or at least more clever. Co-writer/director David Dobkin is transitioning from broad/raunchy comedy to earnest adult drama here, so you can kind of understand why the tone is sometimes off. There are some legitimately effective emotional scenes, but there’s also a fairly graphic defecation scene and a subplot about incest that comes to a rather troubling conclusion. Those elements would have been less glaring in one of Dobkin’s comedies, but in this would be prestige drama it just doesn’t fly. Downey Jr. and Duvall give this some heft and the intentions here are good, but the earnestness and slickness don’t make for a mix that goes down well.
Big city lawyer Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.) is the top defense lawyer in Chicago, with a specialty in getting white collar criminals off the hook. Once the small town son of the revered town Judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall), Hank got out early and never looked back from the Indiana burg he grew up in. He’d never planned on seeing his father again, but the death of his mother brings him home. His brothers Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong) are happy to see him, as is his former flame Samantha (Vera Farmiga), but Joseph can’t seem to stand the sight of Hank, and the feeling is mutual. Hank is all set to leave after a fight with his father when Glen informs him that Joseph was involved in a hit and run and is being charged with murder. Joseph wants local attorney C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard) to defend him, but with high profile prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) gunning for the Judge and C.P. in over his head, the Palmer clan needs Hank on the case as well. What follows is a father-son tale as well as a courtroom drama, though sadly one without any real surprises. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that Hank has excelled at the law in order to get the approval from Joseph that he never got as a youngster, while Joseph is bitter that Hank isn’t using his talents in a more honorable way. The thing is, we never delve into these issues in any new way. These are roads that cinema has gone down many a time before.
Robert Downey Jr. gets to play a non superhero for a change here, though it’s still very much the type of performance you’ve come to expect from him. Don’t get me wrong, he’s very good, but it’s showy in a way that you wouldn’t get from another actor in this role. Robert Duvall is probably the highlight of the film, giving heft to the role of an aging patriarch who has some very strong opinions on how life should be lived. It’s also the sort of thing we’ve seen Duvall do before, to some degree at least, but he does his best to give it a new coat of paint. When Downey Jr. and Duvall go at it, the film is mostly on solid ground. No one in the supporting cast gets much to do, though Vera Farmiga and Vinent D’Onofrio do manage to give their characters a touch of depth. Jeremy Strong suffers from his character being really poorly written, while Dax Shephard and Billy Bob Thornton have very little to do. Also in the cast we have Leighton Meester as a potentially incestuous partner for Hank (don’t get me started on that subplot), David Krumholtz, and Denis O’Hare, among others. Downey Jr. and Duvall are obviously the ones to watch here though.
David Dobkin shows some slight aptitude for drama here, but he has no subtlety at all. This is an idea that he came up with alongside scribe Nick Schenk, who then wrote the actual script with Bill Dubuque, and it’s a screenplay in love with cliches and abandoning subplots. In fact, no plot development is actually handled well, so it’s a good thing that the acting is strong. For a movie that runs nearly two and a half hours long (and feels it too), almost no subplot is resolved in a satisfying manner. Dobkin certainly can do this genre again, but he needs to stop laying it on so thick.
If you love courtroom dramas, I’d imagine that The Judge will at least be serviceable for you. The same goes for if you’re a big fan of Downey Jr. or Duvall, though I doubt anyone will wind up thrilled by the final product. The moments that work really work, but they’re few and far between. The film has its heart in the right place, but that’s not enough. The Judge isn’t a bad movie, but it’s far too close to mediocre for the amount of talent here.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!