Film review: Despite talented cast The Judge falters

Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall star in The Judge, a comedy/family drama in which father and son battle each other and the legal system. Publicity photo. Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall star in The Judge, a comedy/family drama in which father and son battle each other and the legal system. Publicity photo.

You know you’re in for something when every actor in a movie’s press release gets an individual citation for the role that got them either an Academy Award or a nomination—Robert Downey, Jr. (Chaplin, Tropic Thunder), Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies), Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air)—while the director must suffer the indignity of admitting to making Wedding Crashers for the sole purpose of getting his own parenthetical.

Yes, David Dobkin—director of such broad fare as Shanghai Knights, Mr. Woodcock, and Fred Claus—is the man behind The Judge, a 141-minute courtroom drama/prodigal son parable/romantic comedy in the most pandering award-bait so far this season.

Robert Downey, Jr. stars as Hank Palmer, a slick, big city lawyer with small town roots who returns home to Carlinville, Indiana for his mother’s funeral. While spending time with his estranged family—his judge father Joe (Robert Duvall) and his brothers Glen and Dale (Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong)—it becomes clear that the tensions Hank left behind are still simmering, and he plans to leave the next day. At the last minute, Hank notices something wrong with his father’s car, which leads back to a vehicular homicide of a man Joe once put away, an incident of which the elderly judge has no recollection. Hank must now decide whether or not to use his skills in the courtroom to assist his ornery, difficult father, a task that is not particularly easy for either of the stubborn legal aces.

At such a length, The Judge might have been easier to swallow had it gone either full drama or leaned more heavily on the comedy while shaving off 30 or so minutes. As it stands, the film is less of a coherent story as much as it is a series of sincere moments from Happy Madison movies strung together. The length is mostly due to an abundance of side plots that weave in and out of the main narrative, feeling as though they were shot with the expectation of having at least one cut out of the film. Few of the detours lead anywhere worth going. For example, when Hank goes out drinking with his brothers, a courageous defense of his family leads to making out with a pretty young bartender. The true identity of this character becomes a running joke with some extreme possibilities, yet the film never fully commits to the premise.

Dobkin occasionally stumbles into greatness when he pulls back from Janusz Kaminski’s same old tricks and allows his two lead actors to play off of each other organically. Downey and Duvall have amazing on-screen chemistry, as seen in a standout exchange during a tornado warning that would be at home in a Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

Written as an R-rated family movie, acted like a courtroom drama, and directed like a Frat Pack comedy with no punchlines, The Judge has no target demographic nor any point to make, and it will collapse in its ambition for award recognition. If the Oscars were a third grade social studies class, The Judge would be the kid who always raises his hand fastest but consistently gets the answer wrong.

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