A film review by Craig J. Koban October 18, 2014 

THE JUDGE jjj
 

2014, R, 141 mins.

 

Robert Downey Jr. as Henry "Hank" Palmer  /  Robert Duvall as Judge Joseph "Joe" Palmer  /  Vera Farmiga as Samantha  /  Vincent D'Onofrio as Glen Palmer  /  Jeremy Strong as Dale Palmer  /  Billy Bob Thornton as Dwight Dickham  /  David Krumholtz as Mike Kattan  /  Emma Tremblay as Lauren Palmer  /  Dax Shepard as C.P. Kennedy  /  Ken Howard as Judge Warren  /  Leighton Meester as Carla  /  Balthazar Getty as Deputy Hanson  /  Grace Zabriskie as Mrs. Blackwell

Directed by David Dobkin  /  Written by Bill Dubuque and Nick Schenk

There is very little territory that THE JUDGE covers that has not already been shown in numerous other legal thrillers or family melodramas.  The film builds to a obligatory “big” courtroom climax ala John Grisham and, along the way, tells a fairly predictable tale of a father and son that have been estranged for years, but are brought back together over the death and funeral of a mutual loved one and are then forced to come to grips with their respective differences.  As far as these types of genre films go, THE JUDGE seems to wallow in old fashioned and overused movie conventions through and through. 

However, that’s not the inherent charm of the film.  THE JUDGE primarily exists as an excuse to get two masterful actors – in this case, Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall – to run freely with the material and perform wonders opposite of each other for two-plus hours.  David Dobkin’s (a far cry away from past films like WEDDING CRASHERS, FRED CLAUS, and THE CHANGE UP…and better for it) film knows the limitless strengths of his actors in front of the camera and does the wise thing of allowing them to find their paths through an otherwise formulaic film and, in turn, rise far above it.  It could be said that the roles that the two Roberts play are certainly not outside of their comfort windows (Downey plays the affably narcissistic motormouth that’s frustratingly right all of the time, whereas Duvall plays the grimacing and cantankerous sage figure), but that’s not the point.  These two thespian heavyweights are so damn good at playing these types of roles that it hardly matters.  THE JUDGE is proof positive that when you have performers at the top of their game that most objections about a film’s mechanically derived plot can easily be forgiven, if not forgotten. 

Downey Jr. plays Hank Palmer, a big city hotshot attorney that has a knack for defending upper class scum of the earth from being sentenced to lengthy prison terms.  He perpetually operates within a cold moral vacuum, fully realizing that a majority of his clients are indeed guilty (“Innocent people can’t afford me”).  His life on the home front is not quite so successful, as his wife has recently cheated on him, leaving him to ponder who will get rights to their young daughter.  Matters get worse when he receives word – rather inopportunely during a trail – that his mother has passed away back home in Indiana, which forces Hank to not only return home to the small town life he despises, but also to come face-to-face with his old man, Judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall), whom he hasn’t spoken to for years.   

 

 

Unavoidably, things get testy between father and son both before, during, and after the funeral, but the lives of the entire family are turned upside down when Joseph is suddenly arrested on the charge of murder, something that Hank, his siblings, and a majority of the town's citizens can’t believe to be true.  Of course, Hank – being a defense attorney with an impeccable win-loss record – wants to help his father stave off prison time, but Joseph seems stubbornly determined to not rely on his son and instead seeks legal aid from the town’s local lawyer (Dax Shepard, nicely playing a naďve and in-over-his-head dweeb for a change).  When evidence begins to mount and another crackerjack attorney (Billy Bob Thornton) shows up to ensure that Joseph goes to jail, Joseph begrudgingly decides to let his son defend him, but as the trial progresses even Hank begins to doubt his dad’s innocence. 

Dobkin, initially at least, doesn’t seem like the right primary candidate to helm a fairly somber legal thriller like THE JUDGE, but he seems to know his way around the material rather well (which may or may not have something to do with the fact that his father was a lawyer).  It could be said that the whole overarching story of Joseph’s trail and his potential guilt/innocence is almost a cursory element in the film.  THE JUDGE is less about the case than it is about the fragile relationship between a father and son that both harbor deep regrets and hostilities towards the other for past indiscretions that are only brought to the forefront when life throws both of them a very dicey curveball.  THE JUDGE certainly is involving in terms of Dobkin thrusting the viewer forward in the minutia of Joseph’s apparent murder of another man, but as the film moves steadily forward (it’s a remarkably brisk one at nearly two and a half hours) we become almost more invested in whether or not Hank and Joseph will finally bury the hatchet and deal with their fractured relationship.   

Again, having Downey Jr. and Duvall share the spotlight pays off handsomely.  Downey Jr. has this manner of making the most hyper-aggressive and verbally caustic characters seem paradoxically endearing, and he manages to sell all of that in Hank while, at the same time, relaying a wounded vulnerability lurking beneath his otherwise confident outward swagger.  At 83, it’s kind of amazing to see a veteran like Duvall not missing a performance beat in playing a character of complex contradictions.  He’s the kind of actor that instantly conveys an aura of stern-faced authority and inner strength, and Joseph is a man whose emotional spectrum is all over the proverbial map.  He is indeed the family – and in a way, the town’s – head patriarch that’s honored and respected, but he’s also a stubborn and guarded man that internalizes great pains that he refuses to allow anyone to assist him with.  Make no mistake about it - when Downey Jr. and Duvall occupy the same space there’s rarely a dull moment to be had in THE JUDGE.   

The supporting performances are fine as well, like Vincent D’Onofrio playing Hank’s older brother that also carries the burden of remorse and regret on his shoulders.  Billy Bob Thornton is as slick as ever playing the sharp-tongued prosecutor that can match verbal wits with Hank (I appreciated the fact that the film never paints him as a villainous antagonist towards Hank and Joseph; he’s just a lawyer trying to get the job done).  The always-wonderful Vera Farmiga also shows up as a local diner owner that was dumped by Hank years ago.  Farmiga is such a strong presence in the film, but I only wished that her character was fleshed out more beyond that of a perfunctory love interest (she’s thrown into the story not out of necessity, but rather when the narrative deems it convenient). 

I can certainly see how many have taken issue with how overstuffed THE JUDGE is as well, and it’s true that the script is padded with many unnecessary elements that are distractingly vying for attention.  Some of the courtroom theatrics and developments are also a bit head scratching and far-fetched, but it sure makes for a compelling dynamic to see a son push the limits of his own father’s patience and fortitude while on the witness stand.  THE JUDGE is not an original work, to be fair; anyone with a reasonable head on his or her shoulders will know precisely where the story is headed at just about any moment.  Yet, when you have the virtuoso likes of Downey Jr. and Duvall fearlessly throwing themselves into scenes opposite of each other with a freewheeling abandon…well…that certainly makes this film’s unsurprising journey one worth taking.

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