They say you can’t go home again, but that’s not the case for Robert Downey Jr.‘s Hank Palmer. His hometown, Carlinville, Indiana, is the kind of place that has a Blueberry Festival banner festooned over its main street, and where everyone seems to be on a first name basis. For Hank, that means the memories, pain, friends and family he left behind for the big city await him unchanged when he returns for his mother’s funeral. It’s a reunion that he’d rather not have, as he’s been long estranged from his siblings and parents, but he’ll have to encounter them all when his father, the titular "The Judge" of the film, is accused of murder.
With a script by"Gran Torino" screenwriter Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, the film is concerned with grizzled and grumpy behavior similar to the Clint Eastwood film, as neither Hank nor Robert Duvall’s Judge Joseph Palmer are warm and fuzzy individuals. The former has shaken off an adolescence marked by hijinks and minor crime to forge a successful career as a lawyer specializing in helping the rich and guilty avoid jail. As he quips early on, "Innocent people can’t afford me." Meanwhile, the latter comes from the school of tough love, especially when it came to Hank. While he handed out second chances in his courtroom, Joseph was less forgiving towards his son, hoping to scare him straight. So needless to say, when the pair are forced back together, the gap between them is palpable. In this film, director David Dobkin highlights every emotional beat and ensures that every sentiment is underlined.
The filmmaker, who has largely directed comedies ("Wedding Crashers," "The Change-Up," "Shanghai Knights," "Fred Claus") doesn’t seem like the most obvious choice for "The Judge," because while it has its share of comedy, the movie wants to soberly address the complex nature of father/son relationships. And perhaps because he’s not confident enough to let the actors and material find their own space, Dobkin over-emphasizes the dramatic information he wants the audience to take in. And since the distance between Hank and Joseph isn’t just left to Downey Jr. and Duvall, Dobkin adds a scene (and a wide shot) where the duo storm angrily out of a car, and walk in opposite directions down the road. This is one example of the director’s insistence on ensuring that thematic and dramatic elements are conveyed so clearly that what could’ve been a knotty original work is instead conventional, safe and largely predictable. But the movie does have somewhat admirable ambition.
Running two hours and twenty minutes, "The Judge" gives Hank quite a lot to home in on in addition to defending his father in court. He’s got two brothers: the sad sack former star baseball player Glen (played with twitchy frumpiness by Vincent D’Onofrio), and the simple, Rain Man-esque Dale (Jeremy Strong), for whom making home movies and tinkering with his projector is akin to Raymond Babbit’s "The People’s Court" compulsion in "Rain Man." There’s also ex-girlfriend Samantha (Vera Farmiga) who he hasn’t seen since high school; Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), a dastardly prosecuting attorney who ominously carries his own retractable water cup and a grudge against Hank. Not to mention Joseph might be close to death’s door and Hank is also going through a divorce, with custody of his daughter in the balance. Sheesh.
Frankly, those are enough subplots for two movies, and not surprisingly none resonate. Moreover, neither the script nor Dobkin is able to join them together into anything meaningful. The court case intended as the central point of interest is not possessed of much above "My Cousin Vinny" level intrigue (but with less laughs or entertainment value). Meanwhile, the endless detours from the central story seem like distractions rather than the padding needed to make us understand what makes Hank tick. "The Judge" curiously strains too hard while managing to say little of consequence, but as if leaving nothing to chance, the film trots out Bon Iver‘s overused "Holocene" as a last ditch effort to try and stir something emotionally out of the audience. Should that gambit fail, there’s the Hail Mary of Willie Nelson‘s cover of Coldplay‘s "The Scientist" during the closing credits.
Over engineered for critical approval (which it likely won’t get) and audience appreciation (perhaps), the slickly produced "The Judge" is the kind of movie that would’ve been an Oscar contender in the era of "Driving Miss Daisy" (which the film references in a joke during one of Downey Jr.’s verbal riffs) but feels musty and dated now, right down to Janusz Kaminski‘s consistently honeyed cinematography (which feels out of place, and almost a bit too Thomas Kinkade) and Thomas Newman‘s chintzy score. "The Judge" is certainly a cinematic misdemeanor, a movie that wants to wear the robes and bang the gavel, but barely earns the right to take the stand. [C-]