Slick but superficial and overloaded with clichés, David Dobkin’s combination of familial reconciliation and courtroom fireworks resembles nothing more than a “very special episode” of a TV lawyer show—one made by David Kelley, perhaps. “The Judge” is entertaining enough, but in a shallow, manipulative fashion that leaves you feeling vaguely used at the end.
The movie does, however, provide meaty roles for its two leads. Robert Downey, Jr. (whose wife is one of the producers) plays Hank Palmer, a canny, unprincipled Chicago defense lawyer who specializes in getting sleazeballs off via whatever cheap trick he can come up with—a part that utilizes to the hilt the actor’s ability to exude smarmy charm while delivering quick-witted zingers. (Just think Tony Stark with a law degree from Northwestern, no less.) One morning, however, brings a double whammy: his wife (Sarah Lancaster) is preparing to divorce him, and he gets news that his mother has died. The latter prompts him to drive back to the Indiana hometown he hasn’t visited in years for the funeral.
There he’ll have to confront his estranged father Joseph, the crusty title character who’s sat on the bench for over forty years and greets Hank with an indifference than occasionally morphs into outright contempt. They’ll have to bond again, of course, but the catalyst comes when the elder Palmer is charged with deliberately running down an unsavory local ex-con (Mark Kiely) he’d once treated leniently in sentencing for threatening his girlfriend—a lapse that enabled the man to brutally murder her after a few weeks in the county lockup. When his local attorney (Dax Shepard) proves utterly incapable against Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), a seasoned prosecutor from Gary, Hank will have to take on the judge’s case and try to save him from the pokey. Joseph’s claims not to remember what happened despite evidence that it was his car that killed the victim, and his refusal to follow his son’s instructions, make the task all the more difficult.
This central aspect in the screenplay by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque (based on a story by Dobkin and Shenk) isn’t without virtues, and it provides Downey with plenty of opportunities not only to strut around smartly and exhibit the cunning that lies beneath the surface, but also to demonstrate his dramatic chops in scenes with Duvall. It also provides the older actor (playing considerably younger than his actual age) with the chance to shine. Duvall does the requisite crotchety act with aplomb, of course, but the part also demands him to show the character’s pain over his failing mind and body, and his does so unflinchingly, especially in a bathroom scene with Downey. If the scene turns squishy toward the close, as if Dobkin were fearful of challenging the audience overmuch, that’s typical of the whole film, which also culminates in a final courtroom revelation that ties together what happened on the highway on the night in question with long-ago events explaining the estrangement between father and son in all too pat a package.
What really hobbles “The Judge,” however, are all the ancillary tangents the script adds to this core, which among other things drags the picture out to nearly two-and-a-half hours. There’s the old high school flame of Hank’s (Vera Farmiga) with whom he clumsily rekindles a romance, even though at first he’s unknowingly enjoyed a brief moment with a bartender (Leighton Meester) who turns out to be her daughter—and the father’s identity isn’t a matter of record. Then there are Hank’s two brothers—Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), a tire-shop operator whose chance at a pro baseball career was ended by an accident that remains mysterious until late in the movie, and Dale (Jeremy Strong), a mentally-challenged young man who spends his time shooting film to add to the family’s collection of home movies. Both provide ample opportunity for Dobkin to recur to long-suppressed angers and lighten the mood by having the “Rainman”-like lad make inappropriate comments. Medical problems enter into the narrative, too, as also does Hank’s darling daughter (Emma Tremblay), who comes to town for a visit and elicits an outpouring of grandfatherly affection. Even a tornado—or at least the threat of one—makes an appearance. All of this burdens the picture with overmuch incident, as if the emotional baggage between Hank and Joseph weren’t enough for it to carry.
Still, Downey and Duvall provide some very strong moments, and though the rest of the cast are thoroughly overshadowed by them, D’Onofrio and Thornton have theirs too, even if they’re pretty much reduced to clichés. (The sneering, self-righteous Dickham, for example, is “characterized”—if that’s the right word—by a single quirk: bringing his own metal water-glass with him to court, which he ostentatiously opens up on several occasions.) Farmiga brings earthiness but little else to her role, and Strong is stuck in a part that would have been almost impossible not to reduce to caricature. The same thing applies to Shepard, who’s just walking comic relief, especially in a repeated bit about his squeamishness prior to entering the courtroom. Ken Howard, as a judge, Balthazar Getty, as a deputy, and Grace Zabriskie, as the dead man’s angry mother, all do reliable work. But it’s rather a shock to see David Krumholtz, who appears at the beginning and close of the movie as the exasperated prosecutor Hank comes up against in Chicago: he’s put on almost as much weight since “Numbers” as D’Onofrio has from his early days. But he still exudes the same haggard charm one recalls from his previous performances.
The technical aspects of “The Judge” are thoroughly professional. But while it’s nicely shot by Janusz Kaminski, it must be noted that the Massachusetts locations, with their rushing waterfalls and stores advertising thyme, do not prove a convincing stand-in for Indiana, though the brief shot of Downey driving past endless fields of corn is right on. Thomas Newman’s score accentuates the obvious.
So the verdict on “The Judge” is mixed. As a piece of pulp popular entertainment, it works reasonably well, and provides a vehicle for bringing together one of today’s major stars with one of the few real icons of cinema still working today. But ultimately its overlong mixture of judicial theatrics and sentimental family drama doesn’t amount to much.