You’d be forgiven for making a snap decision based on the opening scene of The Judge, which sees fast-talking, hot-shot lawyer Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) pivot at a urinal to ‘accidentally on purpose’ dampen the mood of a colleague who is berating him for consistently taking on morally dubious clients. Hank justifies his raison d’être as he expertly tosses a paper towel in the bin, calling on a litany of materialistic life successes: his fine garb, his stunning house, his Ferrari. Yes, this seems like another Robert Downey Jr. flick saturated in all the usual RDJ shtick, but happily there’s a bit more churning away inside.
The Judge in question is Hank’s father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), one of those crotchety, back-water, table-thumping kind of judges, who wholeheartedly despises Hank’s big city life. The two are forced to find some manner of reconciliation when Hank must defend his father against an accusation of murder. It is the fish out water element of the story that wins through – the sleepy town of Carlinville, Indiana provides the backdrop for Hank to go through the process of coming face to face with his mother, his father, his brothers, and old lovers in an almost Dickensian reflection on his life to date.
Director David Dobkin’s background in comedy (The Wedding Crashers, Shanghai Knights) is on show here, with plenty of laugh out loud moments, but The Judge is distinct in its move away from the audacious to the melodramatic. The more ambling pace at which Dobkin directs allows for some impressive performances from the rest of the cast. Particular stand outs are Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) who plays Hank’s old flame, Samantha; and Vincent D’Onofrio, who plays Hank’s older brother – a once promising athlete who had his chances scuppered and carries all that frustration and resentment that brings. Billy Bob Thornton also appears as a prosecuting attorney, a kind of gatekeeper that Hank must pass on his journey – it stands out as a strange bit of casting, as Thornton seems too big to fill an essentially gratuitous role. Once we move past the angry judge and the hot-shot lawyer stereotypes, there are some genuinely great moments from both Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall.
While there is more than enough drama in the main story to fuel the film, it is both a blessing and a curse that The Judge provides a superfluous amount of plot. There are love affairs, funerals,
fraternal rivalries, ongoing court cases, divorce and custody battles, and a rickety hydrangea motif, (amongst many other things) thrown into the mix – it is like being served up a carvery with a paltry piece of meat but an abundance of trimmings, which might seem like a bad thing until you start to tuck in. While the diversions from the main story do bulk the film out, they provide many of the best moments.
Ultimately a warts and all portrait of familial love, The Judge showcases strong lead performances from both Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall; while resting on one of the most solid supporting casts of the year. The clash between the high drama of the courtroom and the everyday drama of the living-room is unfortunate, as the unruliness of the story will be a stickler for some viewers. There is a lot that could have been improved with a tighter edit, but a lot that would have been lost as well. There are too many other good things wrapped up in 140 minutes to pass a severe sentence.