The Judge (2014)
142 min., rated R.
A slick, sturdily performed middlebrow melodrama that meanders a bit and overstays its welcome, "The Judge" is just fine, even if it bites off more than it can chew. It's a "you-can't-go-home-again" story. It's a reconciliation story between fathers and sons, brothers, and a father and daughter. It's a courtroom drama. It's even a rekindled romance. There's the overriding sense that it should have taken one direction and stuck with it, but it's the sort of film we go to see actors coasting along as types that they've reliably honed. Getting David Dobkin, the man responsible for directing such comedic fare as 2005's "Wedding Crashers," 2007's "Fred Claus" and 2011's "The Change-Up," to helm a sober drama would not sound like common sense, although if there is any correlation between "The Judge" and the director's previous work, there is the through-line of a black sheep, not in the Claus family this time, and one bit of fecal matter, not played for laughs. If nothing else, Robert Downey Jr. gives this overlong, schmaltzy material a shot in the arm with his no-bull charisma.
Uber-slick Chicago defense attorney Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) never loses a case, but his life is not all enviable. His younger wife Lisa (Sarah Lancaster) has cheated on him, so a divorce is on the way, and he's one of those workaholic dads who doesn't get to spend enough time with daughter Lauren (Emma Tremblay). Then, one morning in court, Hank receives a call that his mother has passed away, so that means returning to his corn-belt hometown of Carlinville, Indiana. Without the warmest of welcomes, except from mentally slow younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong), he goes back home to his crusty old man, Joseph (Robert Duvall), who's been a respected judge for forty-two years and sober for twenty-eight. The judge is also ornier than ever, especially toward his middle son. The night after putting his wife to rest, he drives to get groceries, apparently unaware of a scratch, dent, and blood on the hood of his 1971 Cadillac. Just as Hank gets on the plane in the morning never to look back, older brother Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) begs Hank to stick around and defend their old father who's arrested and charged for first-degree murder. While his stay in Carlinville gets prolonged, Hank also finds time to reconnect with former high school flame Samantha (Vera Farmiga), a waitress and owner of the local diner who became close friends with Hank's mother before she died. Place your bets: Will Hank and Joseph bury the hatchet after they're done locking horns? Did Joseph intentionally murder a lowlife town yokel whom he sentenced to prison for many years?
From a screenplay by Nick Schenk (2008's "Gran Torino") and Bill Dubuque, with story credit to Schenk and director David Dobkin, "The Judge" has more ambitious aims than it really needed and, thus, comes off pretty scattered. If the legal drama stuff won't earn much tension or many gasps, there are blips of emotional gravitas and, thankfully, a rougher edge to the crowd-pleasing elements more than expected. Conversely, it often keeps the viewer mostly at arm's length when it should be more moving. Neither Hank nor Joseph are lovable, warm-and-fuzzy individuals. They are both bullheaded, having not been on the best of speaking terms, and can't just mend their relationship that easily. For a while, we are left not knowing what left this son and father so estranged, so for the time being it's at least entertaining to watch the potent back-and-forth between two Robert D.s. Sometimes drifting through projects on his lovably smarmy charisma and quippy, mile-a-minute verbal bravado, which even gets checked by Samantha as "verbal vomit," Robert Downey Jr. might be taken for granted after playing this same glib, sardonic hotshot with a heart of gold throughout that tiny Marvel franchise and Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" movies. But, doggone it, he is tailor-made for the role of Hank and brings magnetic spark to that live-wire persona every time, even if he's not really being challenged (isn't that why we have movie stars anyway?). Despite Hank's unscrupulous doings as a high-priced attorney defending the guilty, Downey Jr. makes him fun to watch. Robert Duvall is in a trickier spot playing Joseph as an irascible bastard, but he still locates a soul. He's not the warmest of fathers, delivering plenty of cutting words, but being a new widower, one is still able to care about the latest situation that could disgrace his image. There is one stunningly graphic, painfully sad scene, set in a bathroom, that breaks down all artifice and candidly captures the debilitating conditions of what Joseph is going through when his body starts to fail.
In the token love-interest part—because there always needs to be a love interest accounted for—Vera Farmiga is always a bright, natural presence and should be in everything, seriously. Samantha is tough and gregarious as the one Hank left behind, but snipping her character might have lessened the film's bloat and tightened the focus to Hank and Joseph's strained relationship. A head-scratchingly icky, additionally wedged-in subplot with college-aged barmaid Carla (Leighton Meester) definitely could have been dropped altogether, as it adds nothing and basically tests the audience's threshold for taboo subject matter. Grumbling as if he just quit smoking, a startlingly puffy-looking Vincent D'Onofrio is strong as eldest brother Glen, a former baseball player whom the judge doted on the most, while Billy Bob Thornton is wily but undercooked in borderline-villainous form as smarmy prosecutor Dwight Dickham whose steel, collapsable water cup is like bearing a sword. Finally, Dax Shepard gets to play in a lower key as the aw-shucks small-town attorney who throws his guts up before defending the judge.
"The Judge" isn't the most defensible of films. At 142 minutes, it is culpable of too many false endings and not above a few trite manipulations. A heated shouting match set during an impending tornado is oversold as an anvil-heavy metaphor. And, if cinema retired the cloying reminiscing-with-home-movies cliché once and for all, there would be no controversy here. When the use of Bon Iver's lovely indie folk song "Holocene" can't even stir emotions as intended, there's a problem. (We won't even mention Willie Nelson's iffy cover of Coldplay's "The Scientist" that plays over the end credits.) Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski brings a dramatically polished, prestige-picture importance to the courtroom scenes and shows a fondness for beautifully golden light pouring through the windows, sometimes distractingly so. Without taking all of that into account, "The Judge" is so dogged in winning one over beforehand that one would feel guilty of denying its earnest assets and not just overlooking the liabilities. There is a small, subtle poignancy to the final scene between father and son on a fishing boat, and the very engaging Robert Downey Jr. mostly brings it all home. He's the sole reason moviegoers should be more lenient, or else this would be a middle-of-the-road slog.
Grade: B -