The Judge (2014)

Defend your Honor.

If you’ve ever wondered how American billionaire and playboy Tony Stark would operate as a big shot lawyer, The Judge is probably your best answer! Robert Downey Jr.’s first non-comedy or superhero outing since The Soloist in 2009, The Judge is a somewhat predictable father-and-son story, in which their struggle for reconciliation gets swept up in amongst an emotionally laden murder trial. Likewise, The Judge is director David Dobkin’s first stab at drama after a fairly successful string of crass comedy hits, including Wedding Crashers (2005), Shanghai Knights (2003) and The Change-Up (2011).

'Here's my autograph ... free of charge!'
‘Here’s my autograph … free of charge!’

Henry ‘Hank’ Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is a hotshot, smart-talking Chicago lawyer, who has no qualms defending the rich and guilty. After Hank’s mother passes away, he is forced to return to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana, for her funeral, facing the painful memories and distant family and friends that he left behind when moving to the big city; in particular his father, Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) — who everyone calls ‘Judge,’ due to his eminent career on the bench, dating back for over four decades. Even though Hank and his father share an interest in law, the Judge’s obsession with justice counters Hank’s fixation on winning, straining their father-and-son bond, causing estrangement between the pair.

After taking his first alcoholic drink in over 28 years — sparked by his wife’s funeral — then going out for a late-night drive, the Judge’s car is found all banged up the following morning, with traces of blood, labeling him as the prime suspect of a hit-and-run case involving the death of a local low-life. With the Judge’s impending murder trial distressing the family, Hank is compelled to remain in town longer than he had initially anticipated, as he sets out to defend his father in the hearing, inadvertently reconnecting with his divided family along the way.

Penned by screenwriters Nick Schenk, Gran Torino (2008), and Bill Dubuque, The Judge is a corny but serviceable state-of-affairs, elevated by the solid performances of Downey Jr. and Duvall, with their ill-tempered, grumpy behavior, similar to that of Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, surprisingly sustaining the picture’s entertainment value. Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man (2008) — who also serves as a producer on the film — seems to be tailor-made for the role of the arrogant, eloquent defense lawyer, Hank, who remarks, ‘Innocent people can’t afford me,’ and truly excels in the part, with his sarcasm and special brand of mannerisms leading the cast effortlessly. Robert Duvall, A Civil Action (1998), is equally as stirring, with his tough-love approach, particularly when it comes to Hank, playing well alongside Downey Jr.’s brute swiftness, paving the way for an enjoyable contest of wills; the crusty old coot versus the gifted speed-talker.

A 'stark' day in court
A ‘stark’ day in court

As The Judge progresses, we discover that there are skeletons in every character’s closet, with resentments and regrets being exposed as the Judge’s murder trial continues to propel forward — the picture uses its court case scenario as a point of interest, rather than the sole narrative focus — and we explore a number of well portrayed secondary players. We meet Hank’s older brother, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), a once-promising baseball player whose major league dreams were, without warning, shattered, and the somewhat mentally impaired Dale (Jeremy Strong), the runt of the litter, spending the majority of his time obsessing over vintage home movies. While in town, Hank reunites with his old high-school flame, Samantha — the glamorous looking Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air (2009) — who now manages her own bar, whilst Leighton Meester, The Roommate (2011), is a welcome sight as a frisky young waitress, named Carla, who unknowingly causes Hank some unneeded alarm. Supporting cast highlights, however, go to Dax Shepard, Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005), who plays a rather jittery local lawyer, C.P. Kennedy — initially assigned to represent Joseph Palmer — to a tee, and Billy Bob Thornton, Armageddon (1998), portraying the devious prosecuting attorney Dwight Dickham, carrying around with him, his very own retractable water cup and a longwinded grudge against Hank.

Dobkin, being rather new to helming drama flicks, over-emphasizes almost every dramatic beat in the film, leaving nothing to chance, making the picture’s intentions plainly obvious, safe or conventional — he even uses Bon Iver’s popular track Holocene to further enhance the flick’s sentimentality. Nonetheless, it is evident that popcorn comedy-specialist Dobkin cares for this specific project, pouring his spirit and soul into every frame, ensuring he satisfies the suspecting audience whilst vigorously tugging at their heartstrings. Dobkin’s most ambitious and polished film to date, The Judge looks and sounds terrific, thanks to its arresting cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, Jerry Maguire (1996), intercutting from leafy greenery to a bleached out court room, whilst the emotionally noticeable score by Thomas Newman, The Shawshank Redemption (1994), works well alongside the picture’s engineered schmaltzy aesthetic.

'Elementary, my dear Watson.'
‘Elementary, my dear Watson.’

Although overstaying its welcome — the film runs for 141 minutes and could have done with a bit of fine tuning — The Judge is a harmless mainstream crowd-pleaser, allowing its dynamic leads, Downey Jr. and Duvall, to venture into somewhat unfamiliar territory, physically and emotionally, with their characters, while successfully playing off one another. With a solid ensemble cast, and Downey Jr. giving it that extra edge, Dobkin’s The Judge is watchable, sentimental middlebrow pulp for adults.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

The Judge is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia