A top cast in fine form saves the otherwise rote courtroom-slash-family melodrama The Judge, which is unimaginatively conceived but fluidly executed, even as it crawls to an excessive 141-minute runtime. There’s been little post-John Grisham cinematic activity in the legal thriller genre for the past decade-plus, and while the excitement here never bubbles above mild, it has just enough star power to make it work.
Robert Downey Jr. stars as Hank Palmer, the kind of stereotypical big city hotshot defense attorney who seems to have come off the assembly line. In the film’s opening sequence, he pisses on the shoe of the prosecutor (David Krumholtz) who dares approach him in the men’s room; five minutes into the movie, and the film seems to be checking off the courtroom movie clichés.
But while there’s nothing interesting in the characterization of the leading role here, there’s plenty of appeal in the performance: Downey Jr., who might as well be playing Tony Stark or Sherlock Holmes, brings a rugged-yet-vulnerable antihero charisma to the role that the script is sorely lacking.
But he’s not the only star in the cast: Robert Duvall is dynamite as the titular judge, Hank’s emotionally distant father Joseph, who the son sees when he returns home for mom’s funeral. Also in small-town Carlinville are family man Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and slow-witted Dale (Jeremy Strong), the two brothers who have stayed behind, along with Samantha Powell (Vera Farmiga), Hank’s high school sweetheart (Hank’s current marriage, of course, is on the rocks).
The plot is set into motion on the night of the mother’s funeral, when Joseph makes a run to the convenience store and comes back with a beat-up fender and blood in his grill. He has no memory of the events that transpired, but a certain Mark Blackwell was killed in a hit-and-run, and his blood matched that on Joseph’s car. Oh, and the jusge had once showed mercy to Mark, only to see that mercy result in the murder of a young woman.
Of course, it’s up to prodigal son Hank to defend his father – the town’s beloved judge – in a local trial. In the prosecutor’s corner is the no-nonsense Dwight Dickham, who is played by Billy Bob Thornton; in a film filled with fine performances, it’s Thornton’s subtly effective work here as the benevolent antagonist that made the strongest impression on me.
For a courtroom drama, however, precious little attention is placed on the major trial at the center of the film (at a guess, I’d say that roughly 30-40 minutes of the film’s 2.5 hour runtime take place in the courtroom).
Part of the reason for this is because there is very little at stake here; whether Joseph actually did commit the crime is soon rendered irrelevant, and we’re not too upset over the death of the sleazy Mr. Blackwell, either. What we’re left rooting for is whether Hank is able to keep his father out of prison during his (few) remaining years.
Instead, family drama takes over: subplots between the three brothers don’t go too far (it’s all backstory), nor does a mild romance between Hank and Samantha. But whenever Duvall and Downey Jr. are on screen together – whether reliving past father-son drama, sharing quiet moments between attorney and client, or sharing a painfully realistic moment in the bathroom – The Judge really comes to life. Duvall, in particular, is tremendously affecting here.
There’s little ambition in either the script – credited to Nick Schenk (Gran Torino) and Bill Dubuque – or the direction, from David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, The Change-Up). What’s left is workmanlike-effective, in the mold of a good TV drama, but there isn’t much cinematic quality on display (despite cinematography by frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski).
I have no idea what attracted the cast to this project, but The Judge succeeds to the extent that it does entirely because of them.