Two of the most over-used genres in film are the courtroom drama and the family genre. It certainly seems that there are an infinite number of ways to tell the same kinds of stories, which would certainly account for the veritable surplus. The Judge borrows equally from both of these genres to create an entirely formulaic, over-long amalgam which has its flashes of brilliance but ultimately proves too predictable to reach true depth.
For director David Dobkin, it represents his first foray into straight drama, as he is better known for helming comedies like Wedding Crashers and Shanghai Knights. The inexperience certainly shows here, as The Judge certainly has its witty moments, but many of them are tonally jarring when set against the backdrop of very serious circumstances.
Set in rural Indiana, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) has been on the bench for 40+ years. His son Hank (Robert Downey Jr.) is a high-profile defense attorney who has become the black sheep of the family. His mother’s death brings the family together once again for the funeral. Shortly after, however, Judge Palmer is accused of murdering a former defendant in a late-night car crash. Despite wanting to leave the past behind and make his way back to Chicago, a sense of familial duty and legal expertise lead Hank to stick around as his father’s counsel and try to patch up his fractured relationship with his family.
Downey is extremely good in this role, one which allows him plenty of screentime to take over scenes with his trademark acerbic wit. His character’s transformation over the course of the film is a noticeable and worthwhile one to watch. Counterpointing Downey’s quipping is the stone-faced Duvall of yore, proving that he still has the same acting chops which made him a star in the 70s. He and Downey counter each other very well, in a battle of bravado vs. gravitas. A movie this long and this formulaic MUST have memorable performances, and the two stars certainly deliver the goods.
A star-studded supporting cast complements the two stars, and for the most part, they are used effectively. Billy Bob Thornton plays the wily prosecuting attorney determined to nab Judge Palmer on a first-degree murder charge, Vincent D’Onofrio plays Hank’s older brother who stuck around in Indiana, and Vera Farmiga (Up In The Air) plays Hank’s old high-school sweetheart. The cast really does make something out of nothing, as the cliché-riddled script affords the actors little opportunity to make lasting impressions. To their credit, a good number of the familial interactions strike the right notes, despite smacking of saccharine familiarity.
The Judge also boasts beautiful cinematography from veteran DP Janusz Kaminski. Spielberg’s favorite cameraman makes the courtroom scenes look as expressive as Lincoln was, and the many sweeping shots of the Indiana countryside are equally striking. Combined with the charisma of the lead actors, this is a film with a lot going for it. In fact, these very noteworthy strengths are the main reason I was so disappointed by The Judge.
Despite the incredibly high production values and more than capable acting, the script is one step away from being a made-for-cable Lifetime Channel movie. Every single plot contrivance or complication you could possibly think of for a family/legal drama is thrown at the audience, as if circling “all of the above” on a checklist of dramatic plot choices. Troubled past after troubled past enter the fray, unhappy marriage and dysfunctional families play huge roles, to name a few. I was particular put off by the movie’s treatment of Hank’s autistic brother Dale, whose role seemed at times to be more for comedic effect than for actual character development. Combine these mishandled tropes with the most coincidental script you could imagine (the timetable of all the expository events, and there are many, occur in the span of approximately two days), and you have a movie striving to feel authentic but coming across instead as a crazy exercise in table-turning and what-iffing. And at just a tick shy of two and a half hours, this exercise is not one I would wish on many people. I feel like the 110-minute version of The Judge would throw more of the clichés to the wind and focus on its strengths.
At the end of the day, The Judge is not unwatchable. Far from it. Roberts Downey and Duvall are on top of their game, and make a lead duo for which most movies would pine. Plus, it’s a beautiful film that captures the small-town Midwest very lovingly. But in the end, the story is just too riddled with holes and predictable flaws to make Dobkin’s first drama a successful one. He certainly did a lot of things right, and hired the right people to make it happen. But The Judge‘s flimsy story doesn’t hold up in the end, and left me wanting more and less at the same time. More simplicity and time to watch the relationship between Downey and Duvall grow, and a lot less screentime devoted to trying to shoehorn bouts of wit and humor into situations which hardly merit it. It’s a shame too, because the performances of the actors would absolutely merit award buzz in a better film. I guess Robert Downey Jr.’s elusive Oscar will have to wait.
This article was originally published on Ryan’s blog.