A blue-chip cast struggles with an unwieldy script in The Judge, a hybrid comedy, family-reconciliation story and legal drama. Director David Dobkin, best known for comedies such as Shanghai Nights and Wedding Crashers, demonstrates his serious intent mostly by paint-by-numbers psychology and a ponderous pace.
Robert Downey Jr., best-known in recent years for his Sherlock and Iron Man blockbusters, stays on fairly familiar ground as a motor-mouthed Chicago lawyer, Hank Palmer, who specializes in defending the rich and guilty (“the innocent can’t afford me”). For all his courtroom swagger, he’s an unhappy man. On the verge of divorcing his unfaithful wife, he gets a call that his mother has died. After a chirpy exchange with his eight-year-old daughter explaining that only one grandparent is actually lifeless (“Grandpa’s dead to me. It’s a figure of speech”), he heads back to his Indiana hometown for an unwanted family reunion.
Henry’s estranged father is Joseph (Robert Duvall), a.k.a. the Judge of the film’s title. The two men’s differences obviously go beyond their different legal approaches (exploitative versus self-righteous) to some mysterious breach in the past. The old man treats Hank’s siblings – his brothers, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and mentally challenged Dale (Jeremy Strong) – like furniture. Hank is a barely tolerated enemy.
An opportunity to mend bridges is soon provided. When the Judge is charged with deliberately running down a local low-life on the night of his wife’s funeral, he needs a good lawyer. Hank feels obliged to stay in town and help with the case. The subsequent combination of homecoming and murder investigation is a lot of material to fit in, and it stretches the movie out like a sagging waistband to more than two hours and 20 minutes. Along the way, the story allows producer and star Downey to engage in a succession of mano-a-mano encounters with good character actors: Duvall, D’Onofrio, Vera Farmiga as a still-smoking old flame and Billy Bob Thornton as a coxcomb rival lawyer.
While the individual scenes are decently shaped, they often seem to be fragments of different kinds of movies. The most promising of those threads is about the painful intimacy between a doe-eyed, jumpily neurotic son and his flinty, ailing father, and in a scene or two, The Judge is actually moving. Although it’s a pleasure to see the two Roberts sharing the screen together, it’s too bad it couldn’t have been for a more fulfilling reason.Report Typo/Error