The Judge . 2014
Directed by David Dobkin
Starring Robert Downey Jr. , Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester
Big city lawyer Hank Palmer returns to his childhood home where his father, the town’s judge, is suspected of murder. Hank sets out to discover the truth and, along the way, reconnects with his estranged family.
Let’s be realistic, courtroom dramas aren’t exactly the most exciting sub-genre of cinema out there. So that’s why you cast Robert Downey Jr. as a quick thinking, fast-talking smart-ass attorney. You don’t stop there though, you take Robert and you have him defend his cranky old father (Robert Duvall) that he hates, but must stick around and publicly defend because he may or may not have killed someone. He doesn’t remember what happened. Man, being old must suck.
Anyway, taking a dysfunctional family and having them settle their differences in court make all the technical legal mumbo-jumbo infinitely more tolerable. Don’t mistake The Judge for a comedy though – for whatever reason trailers promote it this way – because underneath the above-it-all exterior of lawyer Hank Palmer is an engaging tale of a man dropped into a position where he can rekindle relationships with both his family and friends, all while defending a father that despises his immoral practices of winning cases.
While most of these stories are entertaining with interesting characters and fantastic acting, it does feel like The Judge is cramming too much into its plot. Hank is also dealing with marital problems that really have no consequence on the plot. It’s also revealed that attorney Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) is a rival , as if it’s supposed to be a twist, and is then never mentioned again. I realize that is somewhat of a spoiler, but it is so insignificant in the grand scheme of the story that your knowledge of this little detail won’t affect your enjoyment of the film of all.
In a related thought, while the marital problems for Hank felt worthless to the film, scenes of Hank interacting with his daughter are very well done. Usually child actors are annoying, but here Hank’s daughter shows mature genuine concern that her parents might end up getting a divorce, and successfully elicits an emotional reaction from viewers. Part of that also goes to the fact that Robert Downey Jr. is amazing at finding chemistry with child actors; first it was in Iron Man 3 and now The Judge.
For a 140 minute movie though, it’s just painstakingly obvious that there is material here that should have been chopped out of the film – regardless of quality – in an effort to focus on the aspects that cause The Judge to grab your attention; the love-hate relationship between an attorney and his judge father facing a prison sentence.
Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) has taken a more honest approach to his occupation throughout life, which causes a giant rift in how both think the process should be handled along with numerous headaches for Hank. There are also additional layers and story developments that add further to the story, and actually make The Judge not only a captivating film regarding Joseph’s innocence, but a fairly depressing movie about the later stages of life that we are all going to face one day. I was often reminded of last year’s Best Picture nominated Nebraska while watching The Judge; a generous comment to give a film.
The acting and chemistry between Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall is so excellent that it’s a shame a hefty portion of the film is focused on less interesting things, like past girlfriends. I can’t fault director David Dobkin too harshly though, because for someone who’s directorial credits up until this point only really include raunchy comedies like Wedding Crashers and Mr. Woodcock, he has actually constructed a bittersweet drama full of some well-integrated comedic relief.
Aside from the multiple disjointed plots that really don’t weave together, the only other grating problem with The Judge is that the narrative does get very heavy-handed towards the end, full of unnatural scenes that only exist to manipulate the viewer’s emotions. For example, the final five minutes of the film weren’t necessary and honestly felt like a thoughtlessly lazy way to end the story. That’s disappointing too because the movie really does hit its stride in the final act.
The Judge isn’t going to be a major Oscar contender for any category, but it is a thoroughly entertaining courtroom drama centered on the broken relationship of a father and his son. Occasionally, it tries way too hard to tug at the heartstrings, and is ultimately misdirected in areas by David Dobkin, but going from Fred Claus and Mr. Woodcock to The Judge is one hell of an improvement and shows that he has a promising career ahead of him. For now, just experience The Judge as a collection of scenes with great performances from great actors.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder – An aficionado of film, wrestling, and gaming. I currently write for Flickering Myth, We Got This Covered, and Wrestle Enigma. Follow me on Twitter.