An early entry in the mainstream prestige season starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall? that’s got to be good, right? And yet, despite an impressive cast doing their level best, The Judge manages to squander all their talent on a giant, glurgey, heavy-handed, clichéd mess of a film. It’s the Nick Sparks of daddy issues.
The core idea isn’t bad: Henry “Hank” Palmer (Downey) fled his small-town Carlinville, Indiana roots to become a high-priced defense lawyer in Chicago. He finally returns home after twenty years when his mother dies, but before he can return to the city his aging father, Judge Joseph “Joe” Palmer (Duvall) is accused of murder. Hank is the only lawyer in town capable of defending his father in court.
Now sure, we can see how Hank is following his daddy’s footsteps into law, but then defining himself in opposition to the man he impetuously hates. But that’s evidently not enough to build our story around, so let’s punch it up a bit: Hank’s marriage to his hot wife is falling apart, making him a failure all over again next to his widowed father. It also threatens his relationship with his adorable daughter, Lauren (Emma Tremblay), which he’d maintained as the proof he was a better father than his father was.
But wait: there’s more. There are two — count ’em two — wife-replacements in town. One is an old flame (Vera Farmiga) and the other is a pretty young thing (Leighton Meester) Hank meets on his first night back. And then there’s psychodrama with Hank’s older brother (Vincent D’Onofrio), whose baseball career was stopped before it could start, as well as his mentally-disabled younger brother (Jeremy Strong). The brothers, by the way, are named “Glen” and “Dale”, in case the pastoral imagery wasn’t obvious enough for you. And on top of all of that, there’s a special prosecutor brought in for the case (Billy Bob Thornton), who has a bone to pick with Hank.
And all of this is delivered with the heaviest, thudding direction you could possibly imagine in a prestige season drama. Which may not be a surprise, given that it’s helmed by David “The Change-Up” Dobkin, whose previous career consists entirely of middling comedies. That’s about the level you’d expect when two female characters share a bit of business running their hair through their teeth to suggest they may be related, as if that sort of habit is genetic.
It looks, however, like it was directed by Thomas Kinkade. Dobkin loves this one shot that pans around the room with a giant, blinding flash of light behind some actor’s head. I counted six or seven of examples in the trailer alone. And when the windows aren’t flaring, they glow with an eerie translucence.
Despite this concerted effort, the leads do squeeze out some admirable character work. Downey gets to remind us that he has more talent than Iron Man let him show off, though Hank isn’t all that different from Tony Stark. And Duvall is masterful as the hard-headed, idealistic curmudgeon. But you have to wade through so much mud to find these diamonds, it’s just not worth the effort.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.