Sometimes you can add all the right ingredients, but if the base you’re working with isn’t properly blended, you can’t make it work. That’s the case with The Judge, where all the star power helps to make the film enjoyable but doesn’t erase the abounding clichés in the uneven courtroom drama. And despite revolving around a trial, the flick is really more about the personal interactions of the players outside the crucible of justice and how those relations season the unbiased proceedings. John Grisham-lite or Nicholas Sparks with some gravity might be the best way to describe The Judge. The film’s a bit of a genre switch too for director David Dobkin as he cut his directorial teeth with screwball comedic fare like Wedding Crashers and The Change Up.
By construct, The Judge is rife with conflict and paradox that come in the form of well-worn archetypes like past versus present, country versus city, and the father railing against the son who just won’t see things his way. The film’s most beatific blessing however, beyond the gorgeous bucolic setting (Shelbourne Falls, Mass. subbing in for small town Indiana), is the casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Hank Palmer, a slick Chicago attorney who does nothing but win and has a wife with abs and a derrière you could bounce quarters off. But, as we shortly find out, Mrs. Palmer (Sarah Lancaster) has been bored and wandered with one of her fellow gym rats, something Hank is unceremoniously informed of. All this news comes at the same time Hank learns that his mother has died after a long battle with cancer. Clearly Hank is detached from the family out in the heartland, and for us, the viewer, he gets a few automatic demerits for not being there with mom at the end — his quick reprieve lies in his fatherly compassion towards his seven-year-old daughter Lauren (Emma Tremblay).
Hank’s mother’s funeral beckons him back home to Carlinville, Ind., where not much in the town of cascading waterfalls and embittered farm boys welcomes Hank, not even his own pa, Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), who’s been the town’s sitting judge for 40 years. About the best Hank gets is a slice of pie from an old ex (Vera Farmiga) who he unintentionally slights when he comments that she’s still doing the same thing (working at a diner) some 20 years later. His most affirmed ally comes in his mentally impaired brother Dale (Jeremy Strong) who talks in Rain Man riddles and shoots everything on an old 8MM camera. His older brother, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) is sympathetic, but also resentful as he’s been the one who stuck around (after a car accident claimed his big league pitching career) to manage the Palmer family dysfunction.
The Palmers are not a happy lot and less so when under the same roof, though all the fractious saber-rattling gets put on hold after pa Palmer drives out to the convenience store in the middle of a road-flooding rainstorm. The next morning he can’t remember anything. His old 1971 Cadillac is dinged up and there’s a body lying in a ditch. A body that happens to be that of a man the Judge let off two decades earlier and who, subsequently, followed through on his lethal threats toward the girl he’d been stalking. Suddenly it’s the Judge on trial, he’s got an inept attorney (Dax Shepard) and secrets to keep. Ultimately Hank steps in, and, more than the case at hand, it’s the father and son’s stormy relationship that’s on trial.
As pat and predictable as The Judge is, it does offer vast thespian space for lion-like Duvall to light into some of his fire-and-brimstone bravado (think The Apostle and Apocalypse Now), which plays handsomely off Downey Jr.’s smooth witty snark — something wonderfully refreshing to witness outside of the old Ironman suit. The pair together, even after an all-night bender could elevate any venture, even a Sharknado sequel. It helps too to have Billy Bob Thornton in the mix as the prosecutor assigned the case and bearing an axe to grind with Hank.
Dobkin and his fellow writers (there are four credits) know that they’re twisting old metal here and work hard to find new ways to forge ahead, but in doing so wedge in too many disjointed subplots (be it the import of little Lauren for a cutesy stint in Carlinville or the saucy young law student who stirs Hank’s primals) that subtract from the Downey and Duvall main attraction. I’m not sure how Dobkin carried this impressive assemblage off in the first place, but the real miscarriage of justice by the time the films rests, is that not more was done with such a dream team.