Directed by: David Dobkin.
Written by: Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque & David Dobkin.
Starring: Robert Downey Jr. (Hank Palmer), Robert Duvall (Joseph Palmer), Vera Farmiga (Samantha Powell), Billy Bob Thornton (Dwight Dickham), Vincent D'Onofrio (Glen Palmer), Jeremy Strong (Dale Palmer), Dax Shepard (C.P. Kennedy), Leighton Meester (Carla Powell), Ken Howard (Judge Warren), Emma Tremblay (Lauren Palmer), Balthazar Getty (Deputy Hanson), David Krumholtz (Mike Kattan), Grace Zabriskie (Mrs. Blackwell), Denis O'Hare (Doc Morris), Sarah Lancaster (Lisa Palmer), Lonnie Farmer (Gus the Baliff), Matt Riedy (Sheriff White), Mark Kiely (Mark Blackwell).
The Judge is clearly a passion project for producer-star Robert Downey Jr. and director David Dobkin. Downey Jr. is one of the most talented actors of his generation, but he has basically been making one blockbuster after another for the last few years – if he`s not playing Iron Man, he`s playing Sherlock Holmes – with not a whole lot else in between. He wanted to do something a little bit more realistic, more grounded. For Dobkin, he's best known for comedies like Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus, The Change-Up, and wanted to do something more serious for a change. Passion projects can sometimes turn out great – and sometimes horrible. But often, they turn out somewhere in between like The Judge – which is a film that tries to cram just about everything into a two-and-a-half hour movie, which would have been better had it tried to do less. This is a courtroom drama, a coming home drama, a father and son drama, and a few other things as well. There are two or three more subplots than any one movie could possibly do justice to. Yet, despite everything wrong with The Judge – I have to admit I did quite enjoy the film – mainly because of the acting. The film has one of the best ensemble casts of the year, and all of them manage to do something interesting with their characters, even if it doesn’t seem to be there in the screenplay.
Downey stars as Hank Palmer, a hotshot Chicago lawyer who is very successful as a criminal defense attorney, who brags that he doesn’t care that he only represents guilty people – because innocent people cannot afford him. His wife has asked for a divorce, and while Hank loves his young daughter Lauren, he doesn’t have enough time for her. Then he gets a phone call – his mother, at home in Indiana has died. He hasn’t been home in 20 years – mainly because he hates his father, Joseph (Robert Duvall) – the local judge, who was hard on him as a teenager. But he loved his mom – so he heads home for the funeral. Just as he is about to leave – to go back to his real life in Chicago – his father is arrested on a hit-and-run charge – and the police want to charge him with murder. The victim and the judge have a past – and they do not believe this is an accident.
There are lots of characters other than these two in The Judge – Hank`s two brothers, Glenn (Vincent D'Onofrio) who works in a tire store, and Dale (Jeremy Strong) is more than a little slow. Samantha Powell (Vera Farmiga) – Hanks old girlfriend, who still quite likes him – and her hot young daughter (Leighton Meester) – and no, I don’t think it’s sexist to refer to her as merely a hot young woman, since that’s all the movie does with her. Then there is Billy Bob Thornton as the hotshot Prosecutor, wanting to stick it the Judge – and Hank. Dax Shepard as the inexperienced lawyer the Judge wanted to hire, before he eventually agrees to hire Hank. And on, and on and on. Many of these characters are involved in at least one or two different subplots other than the main ones in the film – that of the trial, and the father-son healing between Downey and Duvall.
When the movie focuses on Downey and Duvall – their relationship, and the trial, it is at its best. This may not be much of a departure for Downey – he’s playing a charming, fast talking rogue, but there is more humanity in his character than there has been in one of his roles in quite some time – and reminds us of how good he can be when he’s not Iron Man. Duvall may be playing a version of one of his most famous roles – in The Great Santini – but he plays it extremely well. The two work extremely well together and their scenes are the best in the movie – in large part due to the fact that they remain the only well-defined characters in the movie.
This isn’t to say the rest of the cast is weak – they aren’t. Thornton has great fun playing the prosecutor – who makes a great foil for Downey, but one he gives more humanity than what seems to have been written. Farmiga is incapable of playing a false note – and that’s an accomplishment given what little the movie gives her to do. D'Onofrio as well does far more with the role than he should have been able to – and makes me wish more directors would use him in quality roles.
The film is, of course, over plotted and overlong. It is far from a great film. In many ways, it almost plays like a very special, long episode of The Practice. But I liked The Practice when it was on and sometimes clichés are clichés because they work. They mainly work in The Judge – an imperfect film, but one that entertained, and moved me.