When reviewing a movie called The Judge, there’s a temptation to use a really corny pun in the headline. “The Judge found guilty of mediocrity” or “The Judge sentenced to bad movie jail.” Stuff like that. Unless it’s outstanding, unless it utilizes a terrific ensemble cast to deliver a touching story with deftness and just the right amount of humor, it’s nearly impossible to pass up such an easy target. So how does The Judge fare? Well, let’s just say they don’t make many movies like The Judge anymore — partly because of movies like The Judge.
The cast is solid, and there are some poignant, honest, even funny moments, but it’s all smothered under a mountain of trite, stockyards-smelling Hollywood bullshit. The movie is definitely actor-friendly, with its story of big-city defense lawyer Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) returning to his small hometown after his mother dies and to his estranged father Joseph (Robert Duvall), the judge in question. Then Joseph is accused of a hit-and-run murder, and Hank decides to defend him.
But from there, things proceed as if from the Predictable Drama for Dummies handbook. Every courtroom scene is set at “dramatic lighting o’clock.” Hank has an angry conversation with his father –– gotta get in some “You should thank me!”s. Who does Hank run into at the local diner? Why, it’s his ex-girlfriend Samantha (Vera Farmiga), still good looking, of course, and still single all these years later. Attending his mother’s funeral — better make sure the ol’ sad piano is playing on the soundtrack. And then the small-town lawyer whom the judge hires (Dax Shepherd) over his son is so nervous he throws up before the first day of court.
And then there’s Hank’s precious daughter, who comes down to visit. Aww. But her mom and Hank are getting a divorce, so there’s drama. Uh-oh! And then there’s Samantha’s hot young daughter (Leighton Meester), who Hank makes out with on his first night back in town. Whoops!
Now re-read that paragraph and see how much space is devoted to the central father-son plot and how much is devoted to hackneyed, extraneous subplots.
Then there’s the humor. Hank is introduced in a men’s room pissing on the leg of a prosecutor, and it flows downhill from there. Every two minutes there’s a joke, funny or not (mostly not), and if any of them work, it’s only because of the actors’ charisma. The whole movie feels like a long, bad sitcom. The story exists not to elicit genuine drama, pathos, or comedy but to set up often inappropriate jokes and cheap sentimentality. Combine that with the F-bomb-filled movie’s R-rating and its maturity level and tone, which feel more PG-13 family-friendly than anything, and you’ve got a film with an identity crisis as well.
The few bright spots in this movie may be just good enough to make you furious at how bad the majority of it is. All of the hoary clichés, poorly timed humor, unnecessary subplots, and instances of pure garbage not only drag it down, but they distract from what could’ve been a damn good movie starring two great actors. Duvall and Downey Jr. are fantastic, as always, and their scenes together sparkle with intimacy, regret, anger, and love. Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio as Hank’s older brother, and Billy Bob Thornton as the prosecuting attorney are crisply understated. Even Hank’s mentally handicapped brother (Jeremy Strong), who follows everyone around with a Super 8 camera, underplays his role in a way that negates any sentimentality.
There are worse movies, certainly, but for all of its potential, The Judge comes up short.
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, and Billy Bob Thornton. Directed by David Dobkin. Written by Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque, and David Dobkin. Rated R.