Courthouse dramas have, in the past, proved to be quite compelling and they’re rather enjoyable to watch. There are all sorts of court cases and crimes committed and we usually get the perspective of the lawyer, the accuser, or the accused. Rarely do we see any of them being related, which only makes the case more personal and revealing. Execution and care are probably the most important aspects when it comes to making this type of film and I wish Director David Dobkin had worked to better those things.
Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is an extremely successful lawyer, whom makes the majority of his money representing guilty clients because they can afford him. He’s hyper-intelligent, quick-witted, and charming, only making him more of a threat for his enemies. When he gets word that his mother has died, Hank leaves his wife Lisa (Sarah Lancaster) and his daughter Lauren (Emma Tremblay) at home, as he prepares himself for what awaits in his old hometown. Upon arriving, Hank is tired from fighting with his wife and he just wants the day to be over, so it’s nice that he’s surround by his brother’s Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong).
After seeing everyone he wanted to, Hank knew that there was one more member of the family that he reluctantly had to see; his father, the Judge (Robert Duvall). Hank and his father have never gotten along and often try each other’s patience, which happens rather quickly upon Hank arriving in town. While it’s nice that he gets to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend Samantha (Vera Farmiga), things only get worse when The Judge can’t remember how he banged up his car and then word gets around that a man’s blood matches some blood that’s on The Judge’s car. To save his father, Hank will have to tolerate him enough to defend him, before too many family matters boil to the surface.
The Judge calls back to an older form of film that revolves around the idea of coming home and dealing with familial drama, as well as some other unnecessary subplots. The old-world viewpoints that some of this film holds play well with our contemporary protagonist, but there are some things lost within this overly-long film. More than that, there are many characters lost, despite having two fantastic leads take the reigns of this film. It doesn’t always make sense, but it’s also not nearly as bad as some would have you believe.
Robert Downey Jr. may not be dawning the Iron Man suit, but his intelligent wit, smartass tendencies, and detachment from emotions are present and possibly stronger than ever. Downey Jr. does an exceptional job in this role, as always, and he really does well with balancing the funny and the dramatic. It’s clear why his character has turned out like this and his interactions with Duvall reveal a lot about his childhood and experiences. His frustration and emotional fragility make him more complex and his relationship with his family members and past friends add depth to his character. Downey Jr. really makes this film his own and it’s insanely hard to dislike this guy, despite his tendencies and semi-douchey attitude.
Robert Duvall has been around the block for a while now and it’s wonderful to see that he can still turn in some great performances. As the Judge, his stern, sometimes cold, father struggles greatly with what’s best and what’s right. He knows that he wasn’t a perfect father, but it’s very hard for him to admit he was wrong and so he bottles up his emotions and acts like he can’t express them. His old-world ways make him look one way to Downey Jr. and another to everyone else. In his moments of weakness, Duvall is heartbreakingly good and he makes some kind of magic on the screen. His bouts with Downey Jr. are fantastic and when he gets emotional, that when the tears start to come. His old, tired, honest man is a great parallel to Downey Jr. and the two couldn’t have been a more perfect pair.
Two great actors does not a good movie make. While my affinity for her is ever growing and she’s perfectly fine in this film, Vera Farmiga is left with such an underwritten character that it quite frustrated me. She’s only a backup option for Downey Jr. and is only around when he needs her. She is given a few scenes to distract him and that’s about it. We get little information about there history, because she really doesn’t matter. Much like her, Leighton Meester is just a pretty face to play Farmiga’s daughter and her questionable inclusion in this film makes even less sense. Both storylines are minor, just like the characters and the effort that went in to writing them.
More than those two underwritten characters, we have D’Onofrio and Strong, who play Downey Jr.’s brothers. They’re pretty essential to his life and they’re more included than Farmiga, but we never get much detail to their past live’s. We get certain dialogue and flashbacks that clue us in to things, but we never do more than scratch the surface. Meanwhile, Downey Jr. leaves his daughter and soon-to-be ex-wife at home and ignores his responsibilities as dad, until his character needs to be happy again. His character neglects a lot of things and I get that he’s not perfect, but he should try to show some sense of responsibility. He just takes off and goes wherever, whenever. It all just seemed a bit unrealistic and irresponsible too.
The Judge has some incredible potential to be a compelling courtroom drama that’s elevated by familial interference. Instead, we’re stuck with close to two-and-a-half hours of half-written characters and courtroom procedurals that don’t seem too realistic. I couldn’t tell you why Billy Bob Thornton was there, despite his thin reasoning that he states. Dax Sheppard is supposed to be the comedic relief, but his character is just stupid and only serves to show how great Downey Jr.’s is. The women in this film are used for all the wrong purposes and it’s unfortunate, because this film is full of talented actresses. For what worked well, I really did enjoy The Judge. Downey Jr. and Duvall are unstoppable together and they really make a grand impression. It’s just everything else that brings this film down a few pegs.
The Judge Trail