When you talk about actors, any meaningful discussion must include two of Hollywood’s finest. Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall.
For Downey, this film, The Judge, is a return to earth. Because unlike the vastly successful Iron Man franchise, as well as The Avengers where Downey’s Tony Stark jetted around in the skies, bringing criminals or arch villains to justice, here, in The Judge, Downey Jr, plays a fast talking, fast living, big city lawyer named Hank Palmer. He lives with a Ferrari in his driveway, and a beautiful trophy wife, and a string of rich defendants that are walking free due to Palmer’s courtroom skills rather than the fact of their innocence.
Palmer loses no time in telling us that if we are average citizens, we can’t afford him. Hence the Ferrari and other trappings of a successful defense attorney.
Duvall, now in his eighties, plays the righteous and conservative Judge Joseph Palmer, living in a small Indiana town. In his many years of presiding from the bench, Joseph has been the one person who could be counted on to pursue the truth. He’s well-respected, and well liked, almost a pillar of what’s good in life. The elder Palmer is everything that his lawyer son is not.
Not surprisingly, the Palmer’s, father and son are estranged. In fact Hank has not been anywhere near his hometown in many years. But the death of Hank’s mother has brought him back to the family home in the fictional town of Carlinville, Indiana.
Bickering, and angry looks begin the process of the family reunion. Dad Joseph Palmer takes his work so seriously, that on the day Mrs. Palmer had died, Joseph still took his seat on the bench and presided over the Court’s business.
So to set the scene – and you can see it coming with no problem – father and son bicker, and there’s been a car accident where a man was killed. Hank notices the dents on Joseph’s car, and the police are able to match the blood on the car to that of the victim.
Now this wasn’t just a random victim. This was a man who Joseph had sentenced to prison many years ago.
Joseph Palmer is arrested for the killing of this man (vehicular manslaughter), and with Hank in town, who is also the smartest guy in any room he’s in, the defense of the father will be handled by the son.
What are our expectations?
A finding of the facts, a verdict in favor of the defendant, and a successful family reunion.
Also in play are Vincent D’Onofrio as Glen Palmer, the older brother, and Vera Farmiga as Samantha, who, once upon a time, was Hank Palmer’s girl friend in high school.
Appearing in smaller roles are Ken Howard, Melissa Leo, Leighton Meester, Grace Zabriskie (Norma Rae, An Officer and A Gentlemen, as well as George Costanza’s almost mother-in-law on Seinfeld), and watch for Billy Bob Thornton, who was recently seen on the Fargo TV series . This time out he’s not an evil murder-for-hire operative, instead he’s the prosecutor in Joseph’s case.
The film looks wonderful, kudos to the eminent cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky (Schindler’s List, War Horse, and Saving Private Ryan to name just a few), but to be honest, despite the film’s good looks, it lags a bit here and there, and runs long – clocking in at 141 minutes. Directed by David Dobkin ( Wedding Crashers and Shanghai Knights), this type of courtroom thriller/family drama is a definite change of pace for Dobkin and he does well in what is essentially a different kind of film than he’s done before. Working from a script by Nick Schenk (Grand Torino – 2008) and Bill Dubuque, Dobkin has been given a kind of a by the numbers script.
By that I mean, that there are twists and turns – some of which are quite well done, and others are kind of head-scratchers. We have to invest a bit of time before we learn why Hank and Dad Joseph are estranged. You’d think that a fabulously success lawyer for a son would please the senior Palmer. But he’s more interested in how you win a case rather than just winning. We also can’t quite understand why Joseph answers certain questions in the courtroom under examination in ways that don’t make a lot of sense. You’ll be wondering why Samantha, the prettiest woman in town, is still single too.
Summing up – we have nothing new for courtroom dramas, and nothing new in family dramas either. But Duvall is great as the crusty and conservative judge, and Downey brings his usual flash and fire. If you don’t go in expecting A Few Good Men, or To Kill A Mockingbird, you’ll come out pleased, which while it is definitely quite a few rungs down from raving ecstatically, this is still good news.
Three point seven five is my rating. With Downey and Duvall on board, as well as a strong supporting cast, I won’t quite call this one a must-see, or a don’t miss it, but I will append a label of worthwhile.
The link to the trailer is below: