The Judge opens with Robert Downey Jr. in typically glib Robert Downey Jr. form. He’s Hank Palmer, a fast-talking, morally ambiguous lawyer with a seemingly perfect life – adorable daughter, attractive wife, nice house, tends to win his cases. Midway through a trial, however, he gets a call – his mother has passed away. The facade begins to crack – he’s divorcing his wife after she cheated on him, she cheated on him out of neglect, and he’s estranged from his family. When he returns home, his father (Robert Duvall), the eponymous judge, can barely talk to him and bad blood is heavily hinted at. A run in with his old high school sweetheart Sam (Vera Farmiga) proves just how uncomfortable he is in his hometown. After the funeral, Hank gets drunk and hooks up with the very young local barmaid Carla (Leighton Meester). Judge Palmer, also possibly drunk, runs down a cyclist, who is later revealed to be ex-con Mark Blackwell (Mark Kiely), who the Judge had put away for the particularly gruesome murder of a young girl. It’s up to Hank to represent his father, but dammit, they just can’t seem to get along. Secrets are revealed, old wounds rehashed and the dichotomy of lawyer and judge, the law and justice is heavily played upon in practically every scene. Meanwhile Hank and Sam are rekindling their old love but there’s a slight complication – Carla is Sam’s daughter, and quite possibly Hank’s. Awkward. The conclusion shouldn’t surprise anyone, but I’ll give you a hint – a Coldplay cover runs over the credits.
There’s an earnestness to The Judge that’s quite frustrating – it’s so very desperate to engage its audience in the idea of the battle between legal and poetic justice that it loses the plot along the way, and with it, the viewer. This is very much a film that wants to have its cake and eat it too – the outcome of the trial and the personal struggle between the two men is caught between the need to please everyone, which means that the film drags on for far longer than it needs to as it endeavours to be cathartic, bittersweet, uplifting, and reconciliatory. The script is too regularly in hamfisted service of the director’s ideas about justice, leaving us with scene after scene of men talking about the law. It works hard to make us hate Blackwell, constantly positioning us in relation to the drama and, in the process, undermining the carefully constructed tension – if we already know how we’re meant to feel about it all, what’s the point in investing in machinations of the trial? In other places, it is negligent and lazy – the resolution of the did-he-make-out-with-his-daughter subplot, which is itself quite present in the film, is not really a resolution, with a still unnerving element of incest that isn’t addressed again.
Hank Palmer is essentially Robert Downey Jr. with a law degree, or Tony Stark without the suits – there’s very little to this character that we haven’t seen Downey Jr. do time and time again since his renaissance, and this isn’t necessarily a problem, it’s just a bit disappointing. The actor suits the character because the actor is the character, and it gives the film an anchor point that is familiar and comfortable – it’s just nothing new. At one brief, refreshing point, this is deconstructed – Sam explains to Hank why they could never be together, essentially because there’s no room for her with his ego. This is a surprisingly discerning and self-aware moment in the midst of a film full of platitudes, but is cruelly short and never seen again.
You also have to wonder how far a departure Judge Palmer is for Robert Duvall – a respected, curmudgeonly actor plays a respected, curmudgeonly man, and plays him well. As such, we can perhaps congratulate the filmmakers on their casting, if not their script.
Other performances range for serviceable to laughable – Billy Bob Thornton’s lawyer for the prosecution is such an overly signposted villain that he becomes unintentional comic relief, unfurling an intricate metal cup to drink from with dastardly flair. Farmiga is excellent as ever but wasted, given agency as a character but little to do as a performer. Dax Shepherd makes for a surprisingly good naïve country lawyer, and Vincent D’Onofrio’s performance as Hank’s brother Glen, a varsity baseball hopeful struck down by an accident just before his big break, manages to bring a poignancy to an essentially rote role. Jeremy Strong plays Hank’s other brother, the intellectually disabled Dale who is always filming on old Super 8, luckily serves more as an enabler of plot than a centre for pity, allowing for a reasonably sensitive treatment of the character.
The technical aspects of The Judge are all exactly what they need to be – the cinematography captures rooms full of dust and streaked sunlight with the slightest soupcon of grain to the footage, giving us a romanticised American heartland. The music from Thomas Newman supports the narrative and gives us the necessary cues for what we need to be feeling, in case we missed it in the overwrought script – his “small town America” score on arrival in Carlinville is sufficiently wondrous and rustic, and his “talking about important legal ideas” cues carry enough references to W.G Snuffy Walden’s muted horns to communicate the desired gravitas.
Oscar bait is an easy and lazy accusation to level at any film at this time of year but that’s just it – it is this time of year. Coming off its premiere at Toronto, a strategic launchpad for any Academy-inclined film, and featuring so very many earnest ideas, you can’t help but imagine where Dobkin has perhaps set his sights. A director best known for flippant and ultimately entertaining comedies like Wedding Crashers (and flippant and less entertaining comedies like The Change-Up), such a serious turn only serves to make the audience collateral for higher aspirations.