The Judge is a very familiar tale of a man that finds humility in a return to his hometown – albeit one with a few genuinely powerful moments of drama.
The Judge follows callous defense attorney Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) – who left small town Indiana life (including his family and high school girlfriend) in his late teens and never looked back. Now a ruthless big-city lawyer, Hank has built a prosperous career defending guilty but very rich parties in both civil and criminal court – with no remorse for his clients’ victims. Still, in spite of his wealth and success, long hours and a pitiless approach to humanity have taken a toll on his happiness: Hank is estranged from his tough-as-nails father, Joseph (Robert Duvall), a venerated local judge, and now his wife is leaving, threatening to take full custody of their daughter, Lauren (Emma Tremblay).
When Hank’s mother dies unexpectedly, he returns to home to Carlinville for the funeral, expecting to be on the earliest flight out of town – only to get pulled into the most personal case of his career. The blood of a convicted killer has been found on the family car and Hank must decide whether he can put aside long-dwelling animosity to defend his aging and obstinate father in court.
Directed by David Dobkin (The Change-Up), The Judge is a very familiar tale of a man that finds humility in a return to his hometown – albeit one with a few genuinely powerful moments of drama. On its own, The Judge is a solid character story with quality performances but many viewers will likely be able to anticipate where the film is headed – based on a format established in countless earlier movies. Similarly, Dobkin’s film isn’t a particularly sturdy platform for Downey to break out of his snarky but charming comfort zone. The fan-favorite actor gets to explore a greater range than his blockbuster franchise roles allow but fans who were hoping for an award bait turn will likely be underwhelmed by Downey’s efforts in differentiating Hank.
As indicated, the story is full of stock plot beats, guiding the way toward a predictable endpoint; yet, Dobkin (as well as screenwriters Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque) injects enough unique pieces of uncompromising drama to keep the mix fresh. Unfortunately, the mystery at the center of the film, along with the subsequent court scenes, are significantly less interesting than the primary story of an alienated father and son attempting to repair their fractured relationship. Dobkin simply tries to pack too much into The Judge (a character-court-comedy-drama), and even with a 141 minute runtime, several key plot arcs are rushed or lean heavily on cliche movie tropes – especially those pertaining to Hank’s feelings about life in rural Carlinville.
Unsurprisingly, the on-screen pairing of Duvall and Downey is the main draw – and the veteran actors deliver. Downey’s performance is far from award-worthy but provides the A-lister a chance to showcase a subtlety that would be a mismatch in self-involved do-gooders like Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes. At times the actor’s comic book movie bravado bleeds through Hank but similarities rarely distract in moment-to-moment drama. The Judge won’t get Downey the kind of recognition he saw with Chaplin but it’s still a passionate performance – one that helps shine a spotlight on a deserving co-star in Duvall.
No doubt, Downey is the primary box office draw but Duvall steals nearly every one of their shared scenes. Whereas Hank is stuck in a relatively standard arc of self-discovery, Joe is slightly more nuanced – a principled man with a clear-cut code of right and wrong. Duvall finds subtle ways to chip away at the stoic exterior – revealing the vulnerable (and downright fractured) human being underneath. As a result, viewers who are expecting a straightforward court drama will likely be surprised by the true focus of The Judge – and its uncompromising depiction of Joe.
The supporting cast is strong, with a handful of familiar faces in key roles, but most arcs are left underdeveloped. Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong portray Hank’s brothers, Glen and Dale, with Billy Bob Thornton and Vera Farmiga in the roles of the prosecuting attorney, Dwight Dickham, and Hank’s high school sweetheart, Samantha Powell, respectively; yet, sadly, very little time is spent exploring any of the characters beyond shallow outlines – outlines that exist only to teach us about Hank (and his past).
Moviegoers looking for a fresh story or memorable performance from Downey will likely find The Judge to be a pretty standard character drama that follows very familiar story beats. That said, Dobkin includes enough unique details to differentiate his film from similar family (and courtroom) dramas – resulting in a thoughtful but not particularly innovative experience. In the end, The Judge is a competent film, and a great platform for Duvall to shine, but falls short in being very memorable (or worthy of a trip to the theater).
The Judge runs 141 minutes and is Rated R for language including some sexual references. Now playing in theaters.
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