What seems like a throwback to another, more forgiving cinematic age, “The Judge” has Robert Downey, Jr., in full smug mode playing a super-slick criminal defense attorney named Hank Palmer. While arguing a case in a courtroom, Hank learns his mother has suddenly passed away. He excuses himself abruptly, leaving his client all alone at the defense table.
When he arrives in Indiana, the viewing is already taking place. Like everything in “The Judge,” time is compressed. We meet Hank’s brothers, Dale (Jeremy Strong) and Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio). And, of course, the judge himself is introduced, and he’s played by Robert Duvall. Hank and the judge, his father Joseph, have a frigid relationship.
The setup of the town is like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Hank even jokes about that early in the movie. In time, the judge will be accused of a running down and killing a murderer recently released from prison. And, of course, his estranged son, Hank, will represent him. Such a thing could conceivably happen, although it is really not advisable for an attorney to represent a family member in a murder case. A small claims civil matter, maybe, but a case as weighty as murder? No way.
But “The Judge” is not a movie that wants to concern itself with anything approximating the law or its procedures. Instead, the courtroom is used as a stage to project all manner of cliched and mawkish contrivance. For example, Joseph is arrested, a preliminary hearing takes place and the case is scheduled for trial in two weeks. The justice system usually moves at a much slower pace. And the film would have seemed more authentic had the story slowed down and backed away from rushed plot development.
To be fair, time is taken to develop the relationship of Joseph and Hank. Duvall and Downey, Jr., give their all, but since the surrounding parts ring so untrue, the genuine father/son elements are lost. And the sentiment is all over the place. An “R” rating seems wrong and exclusively related to the prevalence of the unnecessary “F” bomb. Why have such language in a film that should play well for family audiences?
Robert Duvall is great in everything. He was even worth seeing in that awful golf movie “Seven Days in Utopia,” in which he told me on the red carpet that he took the role because he’s an actor and likes to work. Bad films can be saved through great characterizations by the performers, but Duvall, who delivers about as good a performance as possible, can’t save “The Judge.” And even the Iron Man, Robert Downey, Jr., can’t make me a believer here. Sure, he’s fun to watch as an arrogant dude constantly insulting those around him, but his smartest-guy-in-the-room routine is getting a little tired. Downey, Jr., hasn’t showed us range in years. His comeback as a movie star is largely one note. And in “The Judge” his performance never rises above amusing.
“The Judge” may have many shortcomings, but its odd combination of saccharine sentiment and solid performances make it a light crowd-pleaser. Supporting performances help, especially Billy Bob Thornton as a tough out-of-town prosecutor named Dwight Dickham. But the tone is ultimately all wrong, and what could have been a film with more import ends up being forgettable. The pity is that director David Dobkin could have used this film to step away from his downward trend of inane, banal comedies (like “The Change-Up” and “Fred Claus”).
Instead, “The Judge” is a film loaded with acting talent, but burdened by a vapid script and a conventional approach aimed delivering familiar ho-hum entertainment. And for most of us, that is enough.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This review first appeared in print in the Times-Herald.