Robert Downey Jr. as Hank Palmer
Robert Duvall as Judge Joseph Palmer
Vincent D’Onofrio as Glen Palmer
Jeremy Strong as Dale Palmer
Vera Farmiga as Samantha
Leighton Meester as Carla
Billy Bob Thornton as Dwight Dickham
Dax Shepardas CP
Sarah Lancaster as Lisa
Balthazar Getty as Deputy Hanson
Emma Tremblay as Lauren Palmer
Ian Nelson as Eric
Grace Zabriskie as Mrs. Blackwell
Ken Howard as Judge Warren
Matt Riedy as Sheriff White
David Krumholtz as Mike Kattan
Dennis O’Hare as Dr. Brannamon
Directed by David Dobkin
When defense attorney Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) learns that his mother has passed away, he’s forced to return to his Indiana home and face his father, the beloved local Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), the two of them having never gotten along. Just as Hank’s about to leave, his father is arrested on hit and run charges and Hank realizes the only way to keep his aging father out of jail is to step up and defend him.
As much as I wanted to enjoy this movie that promises to deliver on the dramatic fireworks, it’s a film constantly held back by a script filled with unoriginal dramatic and weak direction by David Dobkin, mainly known for movies like “Wedding Crashers” and “Fred Claus.” It’s kind of a shame, since on paper there would seem to be something viable in creating a dramatic showcase for the talents of Roberts Downey and Duvall. The premise certainly has something to offer as well, but the movie just gets bogged down in expository dialogue and multiple subplots from the get-go and it never fully recovers.
From the beginning, it’s made obvious Downey’s Hank is the type of rich shyster lawyer who only cares about winning his cases, regardless of whether his client is guilty or not. Once Hank arrives back home to attend his mother’s funeral, he’s immediately fighting with his bereaved father while his older and younger brother (Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Stronger) try to stay out of their way. Hank’s father, the honorable Judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall), may have started drinking again, but when he returns home from a trip to the store, his car is damaged tying him to a late night hit and run where the victim was a criminal just released from jail that the judge let off too easy and went on to commit murder.
Before becoming Tony Stark, Downey had always been a solid dramatic actor though it’s harder to believe him as an unrepentant business-first lawyer and a defiant son. Because he’s endeared himself so much to moviegoers with lighter roles, he winds up being more credible in the moments when he shows compassion and warmth than his “bad side.” Duvall, on the other hand, seems perfectly suited for his role and he gives another stand-out performance where he can be commanding as this tough country judge but also vulnerable as a widower with health issues.
Unfortunately, much of the rest of the cast knows better than to try to steal any of their thunder, which includes a passive Vincent D’Onofrio barely trying hard as Hank’s older brother. Then there’s their younger brother Dale, pleasantly slow-witted and obsessed with his old film cameras, allowing for lots of scenes of old family home movies being shown and buckets full of sentimentality.
The fact is that Dobkin seems out of his depth directing his first straight drama, possibly intimidated by the realization he’s working with such acting powerhouses, few of which who would need any sort of direction at this point in their careers (It should be noted that Downey is also one of the film’s producers.) In one scene, Duvall and Downey literally scream exposition at each other, yelling about their history as father and son. Good luck catching or retaining any of that, though. In general, the scenes between Duvall and Downey should be the strongest but their relationship is just all over the place, rather than evolving or growing.
The same can be said for the movie, which much of the time is just dull, especially the first 30 minutes before the main plot is introduced. It’s not exactly treading new ground even with its obvious subplots, many of which we’ve seen in countless festival films, the most notable one being Hank reconnecting with his high school sweetheart Samantha, played by the always-excellent Vera Fermiga. This tangent was already quite unnecessary, but then it’s bogged down further with a deliberate red herring involving Samantha’s grown daughter (Leighton Meester).
Granted, there are some nice moments interspersed through the movie, though the best scenes, surprisingly enough, are the ones between Downey and his young daughter Lauren (Emma Tremblay). Even so, those seem so shoe-horned into the story they easily could have been expendable if one wanted to make any sort of effort to cut down the film’s excessive running time.
If the film isn’t boring enough, the second half is interspersed with the kind of half-hearted courtroom drama we’ve seen in way too many films with Hank trying to get his father off from the murder charges – we won’t go further into details and convolute things further. The courtroom scenes are bland enough before they climax with an absolutely ludicrous revelation that will make you roll your eyes when it happens.
The film is soaked in so much sentimentality that by the time Bon Iver starts playing on the soundtrack, you’re going to want to start pulling your hair out. The score in general doesn’t do much to help the often overwrought dramatic scenes or do much to save a movie that’s floundering almost as soon as it starts and then never quite figures out what it needs to do in order to rescue itself.
The Bottom Line:
Despite a strong cast, all doing fine dramatic work, it’s obvious where “The Judge’s” problems lie: a weak script and a director working beyond his ability to make the movie work dramatically without it feeling overly-sentimental and long-winded.