It’s not that the Robert Downey Jr./Robert Duvall familial and courtroom face to face in The Judge is patently unwatchable, but it feels as if it were created by robots in a laboratory that were programmed to exactly pin-point the kind of legal drama that would slay in the sticks. It’s aiming so low in its construction, tone, and general sense of emotion that it becomes hard to imagine why a cast of otherwise talented people (especially Downey, who also produces with his wife) would be drawn to something so relentlessly mediocre. The reason: because this is precisely the kind of low ball proposition that audiences will eat up sight unseen provided that it has someone like Downey starring in it.
Hotshot Chicago defense attorney Hank Palmer (Downey) gets called home to attend to his mother’s funeral in a small Indiana town. In addition to reconnecting with his well-to-do brother (Vincent D’Onofrio), his well meaning, mentally disabled brother (Jeremy Strong), and his ex-girlfriend who can apparently only speak in down home metaphors (a thoroughly squandered Vera Farmiga), he also gets some quality time with his hardass judge of a pops (Duvall). Just as he’s about to leave their lives for good, Hank gets called back when his dad is accused of the vehicular manslaughter of a freed ex-con the judge once put away.
The Judge is fine if you don’t care about things like abelist sentiment being treated for laughs and egregious tugging of the heartstrings, logic, pointless set pieces, and grand speeches you’ve heard before. You want a store bought apple pie from a chain supermarket that tastes kind of suspect but at least resembles an apple pie? That’s what The Judge will provide with precious little deviation for almost two and a half hours. It equates a look at middle America living with something simpler, and therefore generally makes the asinine assumption that everything about the film has to be simplistic in return. There’s a smugness in the screenplay from writer Nick Schenk (Gran Torino) and first time big screen scribe Bill Dubuque that feels unearned and unwelcome. It’s a film that literally spoon feeds the audience everything it’s supposed to know and just presupposes that everyone who sees it plans on eating it up. For every tear or chuckle the film earns, you can almost hear the sounds of everyone involved patting themselves on the back for having elicited them.
The focus here is on Hank and his dad “working out their issues.” Sometimes that means daddy snapping on the disabled, budding filmmaker younger brother for daring to show any 8mm footage that could remind the family of their tragic past. Sometimes that equates to having Downey and Duvall shout at each other in the middle of a raging hurricane that might be the most useless plot device in any film this year. It might involve an uneasily handled bout of dad losing control of his bowels in the bathroom that doesn’t know if it wants to be comedic or sad, so it settles for a shrug set to an easy punchline. It will answer any question you have about their relationship in the most painstaking way possible via longwinded speeches designed to pad out both actor’s Oscar reels and lay out in no uncertain terms that they love and hate each other in equal amount. It’s everything else in this overstuffed exercise in histrionics that never amounts to much.
Want to know how things are going with Hank’s estranged daughter? I hope you don’t care because that never really goes anywhere except for a tearful airport goodbye at the midway point. Want to know why Billy Bob Thornton’s admittedly great and snide prosecuting attorney is such a jerk outside of a single 2 minute conversation that feels tacked on? You won’t get it. Curious as to why Hank gets away with making out with his ex-girlfriend’s daughter so easily? Get ready for an eye-rollingly longwinded set of awkwad gags before the obviously mansplaining answer. The film will undoubtedly garner both fair and unfair comparisons to the work of novelist John Grisham, but Grisham never treats his characters or intended audience as rubes in need of learning important life lessons. Grisham never talks down to people. The Judge is like being sat on the knee of a rambling uncle who won’t shut up and grows more uncomfortable to talk to with every passing second. It wants to be Grisham, it settles for “actors showcase.”
The familial dynamic between Downey and his siblings and father at least feels realistic, mostly due to some great performances all around from actors who have established themselves well enough to carry this kind of material. Janusz Kaminski’s better than it needs to be cinematography deserves a mention, too. But no matter how much Downey turns on the charm and Duvall glowers gruffly at his least favourite son, everything here comes wrapped in every court movie and familial drama cliché ever created. Not a single thing that happens in the latest film from David Dobkin (Fred Claus, Wedding Crashers) comes as a surprise. It’s just an excuse for actors to look tearfully at each other while sharing the most basic of guilty feelings.
Everything you need to know about this film is summed up by the credits where Willie Nelson does a cover of a Coldplay song. If you want easily marketed Americana, then there you go.