Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: David Dobkin
Stars: Robert Downey jr, Robert Duvall, Vincent D’Onofrio, Billy Bob Thornton, Vera Farmiga, Dax Shapard, Jeremy Strong, Ken Howard, Grace Zabriskie, Ken Howard, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Denis O’Hare, Leighton Meester, Emma Tremblay.
The Judge is the first film produced under the auspices of Robert Downey jr’s own fledgling production company, and this tale of a former bad boy finding redemption and forgiveness has palpable echoes of Downey’s own true life fall from grace and eventual return to favour as a bona fide movie star and box office champion.
Downey and Oscar winning veteran Robert Duvall square off against one another here as the wayward prodigal son who returns home and faces up to his estranged and hard nosed father. The animosity between the two is obvious and provides for many dramatic moments.
For over forty years, Judge Palmer (Duvall) has sat on the bench in the rural midwestern town of Carlinville, Indiana, dispensing justice and common sense like a male Judge Judy. But as hard as he was on the criminals and local riff raff he also reserved some tough love for his middle son Hank (Downey), a teenage tearaway who was headed down the wrong path. But Hank left Carlinville a couple of decades earlier and has not returned home since.
Now he is a successful and very wealthy but smug and arrogant lawyer based in Chicago where he defends all kinds of corporate low lifes. In his own words, the innocent can’t afford him. He has little respect for the law, which is another source of friction between him and the judge. Hank is also in the middle of a volatile divorce with his supermodel wife.
But when his elderly mother dies, Hank is forced to return home, where echoes of the past continue to haunt him. His proud but mean spirited father is still surly and resentful of him, and the welcome home is prickly and uncomfortable. Hank also reconnects with his two brothers – the frumpy and damaged Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), whose promising baseball career was curtailed by a car accident caused by Hank, and the mentally challenged younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong), who carries around a small 8mm camera which acts as a buffer between the real world and his sheltered life.
And he also meets Sam (Vera Farmiga, from Bates Motel, etc) a former high school flame whom he hasn’t seen for twenty years. She now runs a local bar and diner and is keen to reconnect. She also has a daughter, and Hank comes to suspect that he may be the father.
Hank can’t wait to get out of Carlinville and return home to Chicago. But his departure is delayed when his father is charged with being involved in a fatal hit and run soon after the funeral. That the victim was a recently released murderer who had been imprisoned by the judge further complicates the situation.
The judge faces a courtroom trial, but rather than let Hank defend him he opts for C P Kennedy (Dax Shepard), the comically inept local small town lawyer who is out of his depth defending a murder case. C P nervously throws up every time he enters the court. The judge is keen to preserve his reputation and his dignity and his legacy, and he has a couple of secrets he would prefer not to share with the courtroom. But soon Hank has to step up and defend his father because he is the only one with the bag of tricks and the confidence to do so. He faces off against the driven prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), who also has a personal score to settle with Hank.
This rather cliched and formulaic film has been directed in workmanlike fashion by David Dobkin, a director better known for light weight comedies like Wedding Crashers and Shanghai Knights, etc. He seems a little out of his depth with the demands of a serious, character driven drama like this. Dobkin often belabours the obvious with his heavy handed direction and with his framing of certain scenes. But there is one scene in which he demonstrates a subtle and sympathetic touch.
For Downey, his role as the smug and shallow attorney is tailor made to suit his screen persona, full of his trademarked sarcastic wit and arrogance, and ultimately it seems like not much of a stretch for the actor. But those scenes he shares with veteran Duvall actually crackle with tension and emotion, and provide the film with some of its best moments. Palmer senior is a typically gruff and curmudgeonly role that suits Duvall’s screen persona, but there is one touching and tender moment that shows his frailty and vulnerability and allows him to show some subtlety. The pair share a strong chemistry, and there are several strong confrontations between the pair that enliven the drama.
Thornton is good and oily as the wily prosecutor who starts challenging Hank’s belief in both himself and his values; Farmiga is sweet and seductive in a role that adds little to the central drama; and Shepard brings some awkward comic relief to the material. D’Onofrio is fine as the damaged Glen, but his character disappears for large sections of the film. Emma Tremblay provides the cute factor as Hank’s precocious young daughter, although her role is hardly essential to the film.
Part courtroom drama and part examination of complex and troubled father/son relationships and a dysfunctional family dynamic, The Judge is a cliched and overwrought drama that is also far too long for what it has to say. The courtroom scenes are quite tense and well staged and I wanted more of them.
But the film is let down by writers Nick Schenk (Gran Torino, etc) and first time writer Bill Dubuque, who try to cram in too many subplots. The film’s overly generous running time of 141 minutes means that the pace becomes too leisurely, and many of the subplots smack of unnecessary padding and distract from the central drama. We needed to see Hank loosen up and become more human as he slowly begins to reconnect with life in this small town where very little changes, but we didn’t need for it to take this long to happen. Some of these characters and subplots could have been excised from the film thus tightening the core drama without weakening its structure.