Despite his meteoric rise back to the A-List through massive franchise films ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’, Robert Downey Jr seems to rarely want to step out of that comfort zone (not to mention the pay) and do something smaller. Sure, he’s appeared in The Soloist, Due Date, Chef (briefly), and Tropic Thunder, but only the latter has really attained him any significant acclaim. The Judge aims to change all that, and remind people that despite his mega star status, he is an actor’s actor, and there is certainly no better way to test that then pitting him against the legendary Robert Duvall.
The Judge begins in an Illinois court’s bathroom, with Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr), a cocky criminal defense lawyer literally pissing all over the competition. As his latest case is about to begin, he receives news that his mother has passed away (in an odd echo of Downey’s real life). As such, he has to make his way to Indiana, and reunite with his two brothers (Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) and deeply estranged father Joseph (Robert Duvall) who seems to preside over the only court in the whole town. All seems awkward and passive aggressive, until Hank learns that Joe has allegedly run over one of his oldest foes in the night, and finds himself having to defend the man who resents him most against an equally adamant prosecution lead by Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton).
This is one of those movies that seems to be built out of a film school textbook. Narrative wise, there’s nothing really unique, but because the script insists on putting such high personal stakes into each and every inch of the story, it certainly makes for entertaining viewing despite it’s generic nature, with killer performances and above average writing certainly helping everything along.
We get to see some dimensions of Robert Downey Jr here that he hasn’t had to rely on in quite some time. Sure, we get a whole lot of typical Tony Stark-ish snark, but that’s just a veil for all the pain Hank is hiding inside, and we get to watch all that pain come to the forefront. Downey portrays it all beautifully, providing some wry commentary during the films more cliched moments, and knocking the emotional confrontations out of the park. Equally spectacular if not more so is Duvall (who I’ve missed dearly), who makes each harsh word out of his mouth sting with authority, while at the same time giving us a three dimensional character who gets several moments to break that facade. The supporting players are also strong, D’Onofrio anguishing in being the primary caretaker of the family, and Thornton swimming in the sea of smug condescending that he knows so well.
The writing by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque is also very strong, with razor sharp dialogue and moments for each character to be more than their initial stereotype seems to allow. Also surprising is the assured direction by veteran comedy director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, The Change-Up). Not only does the movie look beautiful, really capturing the essence of this small Indiana town, but he manages to intertwine the family dynamic into all aspects of the story, including the courtroom scenes, making for some wonderful scene-work.
Where the movie starts to hurt is in the pacing. This is one two hour and twenty minutes that would have done wonderfully with some trimming. Most glaring is a subplot involving Vera Farmiga as Samantha, one of Hank’s former flames, and her daughter. It’s not bad, and Farmiga does her usual wonderful work, but it serves no greater purpose, and if it was cut out, we could have had a much more focussed and tighter film. It’s a shame too, because it distracts from the very solid legal procedural here, which almost seems downplayed in the midst of everything else.
This is also one of those movies with 170 endings (also known as Return of the King syndrome), and in an already long movie, you’ll definitely find yourself cussing at the screen during at least one of these fake outs. It doesn’t help that the story ends on a fairly weak, unsatisfying note, especially in one critical scene that is quite frankly just plain weird.
There are certainly pieces of a great movie in The Judge. It’s beautifully acted, and certainly proves that Dobkin is capable of more than what he’s been given, but it’s falls victim to it’s own heft. It’s a movie to watch on a rainy sunday afternoon when everything else you have to do is done and you need a nice long time to relax. With that said, in comparison to the recent ‘This is Where I Leave You’, which dealt with similar themes, it’s a hell of a lot better, and certainly makes me excited for more from Team Downey. Hopefully next time they step out of the box a bit more.