Give David Dobkin credit for trying something new with his hybrid courtroom thriller/family melodrama The Judge. He utilizes shadows and darkness in a visual scheme that begs for comparisons to The Godfather, and that couldn’t look more different from his comedies (which include Wedding Crashers and Fred Claus). Unfortunately, the movie’s pedestrian...read more
Give David Dobkin credit for trying something new with his hybrid courtroom thriller/family melodrama The Judge. He utilizes shadows and darkness in a visual scheme that begs for comparisons to The Godfather, and that couldn’t look more different from his comedies (which include Wedding Crashers and Fred Claus). Unfortunately, the movie’s pedestrian emotional conflicts, sluggish pacing, and narrative repetitiveness end up insulting viewers.
Robert Downey Jr. stars as Hank Palmer, a wealthy and successful Chicago defense lawyer who is, as one person puts it, “the best verdict money can buy.” He caters to rich and guilty clients, but his cynicism is eroding his marriage. He gets a call that his mother has died, prompting him to return to the small Indiana town he hasn’t visited since graduating from law school.
Hank’s estranged relationship with his father Joseph (Robert Duvall), a respected judge whose career spans more than 40 years, is the reason why he’s stayed away; sadly, it doesn’t take long before the two stubborn men are again butting heads and denying each other any emotional comfort whatsoever. Although that relationship remains as dysfunctional as ever, Hank seems pleased to reconnect with his older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), whose promising future as a baseball player ended after he got into a car accident caused by a 17-year-old Hank.
Just as Hank decides he’s had enough of his past and begins to head home, Joseph is arrested for killing an ex-convict he once gave a light sentence. The local yokel lawyer (Dax Shepard, who spends the entire movie looking like he’s waiting to be given something funny to do) Joseph insists on hiring is clearly overmatched by the intense prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton), and only Hank could possibly mount the defense needed to keep his dad out of jail.
The overly schematic script from Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, working from a story by Schenk and Dobkin, telegraphs where it’s going every step of the way; it’s an exercise in stating the obvious. This is first and foremost a tale of father and son finding peace with each other, but instead of letting scenes play quietly between actors as naturally charismatic as Downey and Duvall, the filmmakers feel the need to ratchet up the drama. When a scene starts with everybody together in the basement waiting out a tornado, you know it’s only a matter of time before the storm rages inside as well and Hank and Joseph get into their most brutal argument yet.
Even when Dobkin avoids heavy-handed symbolism like that, he often shows a lack of faith in his viewers by having characters describe events we’ve just seen. Equally insulting is an expository scene in which Joseph and his sons talk about a murder from the past, for no other reason than it’s time for the audience to learn about it.
This is Downey’s first dramatic part since committing himself almost exclusively to playing Sherlock Holmes and Iron Man, and he’s pretty much doing Tony Stark here without any flourishes of levity; the character is humorously bitter and sarcastic in order to hide the pain he feels because he just wants his dad to say he’s proud of him. Meanwhile, Duvall does the same crusty-old-timer bit he’s been delivering since winning an Oscar for it in Tender Mercies more than 30 years ago. He’s believable, and he and Downey are good together, but the legal subplot is so ridiculous that it undercuts our investment in the conflict between the two main characters.
The best scenes in the movie are between Downey and Vera Farmiga, who plays his old high-school girlfriend. As always, she brings a sense of preternatural realism to her performance, and she’s talented enough to make her character’s more ridiculous lines of dialogue sound like plausible human speech. Downey is at his best with her because it feels like he doesn’t know what’s coming next. Additionally, the small dose of comedic banter they share allows Dobkin to do what he does best: get laughs.
As the movie limps to a close, after two hours and 20 minutes of sub-Tennessee Williams familial angst and contrived courtroom revelations, it becomes clear that drama is not Dobkin’s strong suit. He’s managed to take interesting actors like Downey, Duvall, Farmiga, D’Onofrio, and Thornton, and end up with a movie that isn’t all that interesting.
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