A strong cast that includes terrific performances from Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall are at odds with a film that can’t find a tone that fits…
Hank Palmer is a successful defence attorney in Chicago who’s currently in the middle of a divorce when his brother calls with the news that their mother has died. Hank returns to his childhood home to attend the funeral. Despite the brittle bond between Hank and his father who’s a Judge and dying of cancer, Hank must come to his aid and defend him in court. However, it’s only here when Hank discovers the truth behind the case, which binds together the dysfunctional family and reveals the struggles and secrecy of the unit.
When you have extraordinary talent on screen with Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall as top-liners with a supporting cast consisting of great players like Billy Bob Thornton, Vera Farmiga and Vincent D’Onofrio, you’d expect something quite epic and classy, especially with its over two-hours running time. Yet the problem with the film is that, despite the outstanding cast, it never gets itself out of the ordinary. The other problem is that being directed by David Dobkin, best known for directing Wedding Crashers, the whole thing seems tonally all over the place.
There’s so many different warring elements and plot devices being thrown around, including a John Grisham-style thriller narrative, the typical strained father-son relationship, with elements of both Doc Hollywood and August Osage County thrown in for good measure. As a result, the film can’t quite make its mind up about what it wants to be, and because of that, you just end up looking at the individual elements of it. Where it works is in the father-son relationship between Downey Jr. and Duvall where they don’t talk to each other and don’t get on, yet suddenly they are brought together by the fact that the father’s body is failing and the parent/carer role is being reversed. Those individual scenes between them work extremely well, are very well-handled, and frankly, a whole movie could have been made like that.
Meanwhile, you have this John Grisham legal-thriller story that seems to go off on a whole other tangent with the involvement of suspected manslaughter, and then we have Downey Jr. going back to the diner where he meets up with Vera Farmiga who’s the old girlfriend with whom he had an on/off relationship. So consequently, it has all these warring elements that never reconcile, and you never really feel that David Dobkin knows exactly what kind of movie he’s making. It’s almost as if he’s thrown everything in to see how much he can get away with.
Both Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall give great performances and are very watchable, plus Vera Farmiga who’s always watchable, but they appear to be in entirely different movies, and as we get closer to the actual verdict, the courtroom clichés really starts to pile up. There’s actually a point in the climatic courtroom scenes where they basically start to have a family discussion of the kind that would give the courtroom faux pas of the recent series of Broadchurch a run for its money. It’s almost as if up until then, they were keeping their cards close to their chests, but then it goes into full on “you can’t handle the truth!” nonsense.
In the end, The Judge is a game of many parts, and in the middle of it somewhere is an 89-minute movie that is quite well-done about Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. finding some kind of gruff, parental, paternal acceptance. All around it is all these other things going on that are alternatively comedic, schmaltzy, Grisham-esque, and they just don’t gel together. It has a strong cast, yet it’s a total mess of a movie, but with that cast and that running time, there’s bound to be stuff in there that works.