It is appropriate that Robert Downey Jr. burst back onto the A-list by playing a superhero, as the actor’s cunning wit and dry charisma has single-handedly saved or repaired a variety of average films. Efforts like Two Girls and a Guy, The Soloist, Tropic Thunder and his Iron Man installments needed Downey’s caustic touch to be memorable trips to the cinema. Now, the actor is back in top-tier form, taking the mawkish, Grisham-lite drama The Judge and doing everything he can to infuse the story with sheer entertainment. He avenges a mediocre script and uneven storytelling with not only flair, but also deep sincerity.
In this earnest return to drama for Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin, Downey plays Hank Palmer, a hotshot defense attorney who only books expensive clients – “Innocent people can’t afford me,” he snipes at a prosecutor – but cannot book the time to talk with his grade-school-age daughter. Hank is so smug and vindictive that when he approaches the judge’s bench to tell him to cancel a trial due to his own mother’s death, the other prosecutor thinks Hank is just making things up, as usual. Meanwhile, the defense attorney’s wife is on the cusp of filing for divorce, and the non-family man doesn’t speak of his dad, a crusty judge named Joseph (Robert Duvall) who presides over a small Indiana county.
Arriving in that quaint town for his mom’s funeral, Hank meets up with a bunch of characters who don’t veer too far from small-town stock, but who also don’t move the story in any new direction. There’s Samantha (Vera Farmiga), a blonde ex-flame of Hank’s who is somehow still single and has not managed to escape the doldrums of running a small-town diner. There’s his older brother, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio, poorly used and barely there), an athlete that never reached his potential and has spent the rest of his life wandering in circles. And finally, there’s Hank’s younger brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong), a clumsy and socially awkward filmmaker who only helps out the story from his super-8 movies, which allow the characters to rediscover the days of old, to saccharine music.
However, despite the clichés hovering in the corners, the main attraction is Duvall’s Joseph, an impassioned judge who still takes up the chair even on the afternoon of his wife’s funeral. Hank and Joseph have been estranged for years. Back in contact, you can see what they share: a caustic wit and a stubborn streak. However, when Hank notices that his pop’s olive 1971 Cadillac is scratched and dented, the lawyer wonders whether or not his father has been drinking, despite a plea to remain sober from a crippling addiction two decades ago.
When police find the blood of a dead man matches the blood on the hood – and that the deceased was a man of criminal repute who Joseph despised – the old judge finds himself on the other side of the bench. It does not take much intelligence to clue in to how Hank will hope to reconcile with Joseph and patch up a lifetime of bad memories by getting his dad a “not guilty” verdict.
Downey’s wry voice and smart-aleck personality is an easy one for screenwriters to capture (just ask Shane Black or James Vanderbilt). The Judge scribes, Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, ease into this tone effortlessly, knowing how to make Hank a scoundrel by profession but giving him a softer side that feels more sincere than sappy. This is a role that was simply tailor-made for Downey. (Based on his sharp, quippy one-liners, the role was also trailer-made, as one can easily assemble some good, less R-rated bits for a two-minute ad.) The actor sometimes has the tendency to rush through his lines, a side effect of the piercing dialogue, but he still shows just as much gravitas as good humor. When hearing news of an ailment that could affect his dad’s judgment, Downey stiffens, putting all of his energy into not collapsing out of shock.
When the shouting and swearing subsides, there is some moving chemistry between Downey and Duvall. The latter plays a conservative man who believes in order and decency, initially lacking courage in his son to help out due to Hank’s more theatrical, ruthless tactics by the witness box. For a man with such a pedigree in law, though, Joseph is rather sloppy when working on his own trial. The Judge’s script does not answer why he makes such questionable decisions on the witness stand. Nevertheless, the two actors, forceful personalities from different generations of cinema, have a searing chemistry that almost makes one forget the slight story elements. (One subplot involving Hank hooking up with a much younger woman does not quite work.)
A modest production that uses only a few main settings, the film still looks great. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski milks the picturesque Indiana fields for all they are worth, with images that sparkle so much they almost look animated. The song choices, however lean on the schmaltzy side, including the high-pitched Bon Iver tune Holocene and a dreadful cover of Coldplay’s The Scientist by Willie Nelson, which plays over the end credits.
There’s no denying that The Judge is an uneven film; surprisingly, for Dobkin, the comedy bits do not land while the searing family drama elements are much more engaging and severe, thereby serving to make the jokes work even less. While some sections are pure Midwest schmaltz that could sway broad crowds more than Academy voters, The Judge is sometimes irresistibly entertaining. You can pin most of that on Downey’s appeal, as the actor gives a performance of deep sensitivity, but with a droll sensibility. If the film’s audience is the jury, Downey does everything in his power to sway us to give him a good verdict. And, despite its flaws, he just about manages to.
A cheesy yet compelling courtroom drama, The Judge benefits from the pairing of two terrific Robert Ds.