Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall, two names that would no doubt attract audiences expecting to see two fine actors shine in a masterful drama. While our two leads certainly deliver fine performances, don’t expect a film that dares to drift away from cinematic clichés and melodramatic tropes.
The Judge tells the story of Hank Palmer (Downey), a hotshot lawyer who returns to his hometown to attend his mother’s funeral. We learn that he hasn’t been home in quite some time, and that comes down to his relationship with his father, Joseph Palmer (Duvall), the highly respected town judge. After a bitter argument, Hanks leaves, vowing to never return. It isn’t long before his brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) informs him of why it’s imperative he come back at once: his father is being accused of murder.
The Judge works best when providing a study of this father and son; two hard-headed and initially unlikeable characters that do nothing but deliver verbal jabs at each other with the slightest provocation. Downey and Duvall play to their strengths and deliver strong turns, nicely revealing layers of disappointment and pain that feed their disapproving natures.
Downey gives us the egotistical-yet-affable persona he’s mastered over the years, and thankfully pulls back his character’s attitude at the right moments. But it’s Duvall that pulls out all the stops here, providing us with a believable, fully-fledged character. Joseph is decidedly old school, constantly lecturing on what is wrong and right, but he genuinely means well. Peppery demeanour aside, it’s his age and the associated ailments that carry the film’s true emotional gun, and Duvall bravely fires those rounds in some of The Judge’s strongest moments.
The supporting cast isn’t given much to do. Vera Farmiga plays Hank’s old flame, D’Onofrio plays Hank’s helpful older brother, and Billy Bob Thornton plays Dwight Dickham, the prosecuting bad guy-lawyer determined to have Joseph found guilty. While they’re all played well, these people are but simple caricatures made to fill in the film’s poorly constructed plot structure.
Which brings us to the fundamental issues detracting from the overall film. The Judge’s key plot strand, the court case to determine whether or not Joseph intentionally hit a man, is an admittedly necessary device to develop our lead characters, but the film’s unwavering aim to keep it all ‘safe’ proves to be an irreversible flaw.
As characters hand out truisms left, right and centre, and the film rolls along with enough movie clichés to have the most seasoned mainstream cinemagoer rolling their eyes, it quickly becomes clear that director David Dobkin (Shanghai Knights, Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus) is way out of his depth here.
Bland direction and an obvious screenplay work together to provide what could easily be a television drama. It’s as though Dobkin and his writers, Nick Schenk (Gran Torino) and Bill Dubuque, were so scared to put a foot wrong, they simply crafted a picture based off the simplest notes to hit.
Downey and Duvall are by far the film’s best assets, and The Judge works wonderfully when it has these two interacting on-screen. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen anywhere near enough. One can only wonder what would be left had two lesser actors been cast.
To be clear, The Judge isn’t abysmal; everything has been calculated to the finest detail. Yet, it’s this aim at providing audiences with an easy and accessible drama that frustrates, leaving The Judge standing as a missed opportunity.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10