Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is a typical big city lawyer (at least by Hollywood standards), defending dubious clients with dubious tactics. In court one day he gets a phone call that his mother has died. He returns back to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana, for the funeral.
There he’s reunited with his father Joe (Robert Duvall), a long serving and respected judge in the community. It seems Hank and Joe don’t like each other very much. One finds the other a holier-than-thou control freak. The other a morally challenged scourge to the legal community. And then there are all the family skeletons. Oh, the skeletons…
Regardless, the funeral comes and goes and Hank packs up and gets ready to leave. Only on his way out of town he notices his father’s prized car has been in an accident. Before long, the town sheriff arrives and Joe is charged with the murder of a convict he put away years before. He needs a lawyer and Hank sticks around to be that guy.
So no, The Judge isn’t built on the most original concepts in the world. The prodigal son returns home. Big city lawyer in a small town courtroom. A father and son reunited by the death of a mother and wife. These are well-worn themes.
In its defense, The Judge delivers these tropes as competently as any. These sort of movies always seem to add up to a lot of stories about events we as the audience weren’t privy to. This film at least manages to find a few interesting ways to get that information out.
It’s just unfortunate that, at least in the early going, The Judge seems intent on marching through every cliché it can like it’s checking them off a list, whether they’re necessary or not. And at 141 minutes, a lot of them aren’t.
For instance, why does every trip home have to include a chance encounter with an old high school flame? Poor Vera Farmiga – who gets that aforementioned distinction – is barely used at all. It feels like her entire subplot could have been cut without changing a thing.
Regardless, what The Judge does have going for it is the performances of Downey and Duvall. They are its anchors. They add nuance that isn’t there when the script is cycling through scene after scene of formulaic family banter and when the movie finally does take a turn and actually shows some depth, they drive it home with remarkable proficiency.
And it’s true, if you wait long enough, The Judge does have some weight. Though at times it may strain credibility – at least from a legal standpoint – eventually the script seems to flip a switch and allow these two characters to be actual people, not just the smarmy lawyer and the honourable judge.
Can a little last minute insight save the largely rote script that came before it? Probably not all of it. But the first two hours or so are, if anything, very watchable, and when they reach their conclusion you should be pleasantly surprised with where they’ve taken you.
And if anyone deserves credit for bridging that gap it’s the casting department. Downey and Duvall are no brainers (nor were they likely “cast”), but surrounding them with worthy scene partners is much tougher, and the folks in charge of that certainly knew where to look.
Billy Bob Thornton is quite effective in a rather quiet role as the prosecutor out to convict Joe. Vincent D’Onofrio, who frankly I’ve only seen on Law and Order, gives a heartfelt, if not understated, performance. And Jeremy Strong does good work as the mentally challenged youngest brother, a role that could have been more problematic than it turned out.
It seems movies like this one are popping up all the time these days, with August: Osage County and This Is Where I Leave You quickly coming to mind. The Judge doesn’t add too much to that list other than a few good performances and an admirable attempt at an ending.
It’s something, but not enough to obtain the Oscar prestige one thinks this film aspires to. Too bad.
Final Score: 3.5/5