There must be a multitude of Hollywood actors who seethe at the effortless charisma Robert Downey Jr. has at his disposal, giving him the ability to turn even deeply average material into compulsive viewing. David Dobkin’s “The Judge” doesn’t qualify as average, but without Downey Jr.’s dazzlingly emphatic turn as a hotshot Chicago lawyer lured home to defend his estranged, cantankerous father (Robert Duvall) from a deadly hit-and-run charge, it probably would. (The film is, so far, being panned by critics per Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes.)
With franchise work consuming his hours following that overlong stretch in the wilderness, “The Judge” arrives as Downey Jr.’s first meaty dramatic role since Joe Wright’s “The Soloist” in 2009, and seemingly comes mixed from the same formula: middlebrow awards bait with the potential for landing him the Big One. Downey Jr.’s only Best Actor Oscar nomination to date came for “Chaplin” two decades ago (he landed a supporting nod for “Tropic Thunder”) but his turn as Hank Palmer could well break that duck.
It’s a character tailor-made for the actor’s showboating talents, but equally — and mercifully — one he doesn’t feel the need to show off playing. The film’s opening stretch depicts Hank as a cocky but likable (and funny) alpha, a ruthless defender of corporate douchebags complete with a cherubic child and supermodel wife he’s divorcing, who gradually softens into someone altogether less prickish after heading back home for his mother’s funeral and being arraigned by circumstances into staying longer than he’d intended.
“The Judge” is the latest in a long line of formulaic Hollywood fare espousing the virtues of small-town life over soulless big-city living. There’s an almost parodic moment when Downey Jr. gazes out the window of his flash rental car upon arrival to witness an idyllic vision of happy, smiling kids with fishing poles, beaming mothers bearing delicious produce and a banner flapping across Main Street announcing ‘The Blueberry Festival’. “Nothing ever changes,” he sneers of his “corn-belt Bible-bashing” purgatory.
But even a rhesus monkey could figure out exactly where this is all heading, courtesy of a multitude of characters whose main function is to help Hank see the light: obtuse younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong), a mentally impaired shutterbug happiest behind his camera; brusque elder brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), whose own big-time dreams were cruelly curtailed in youth; and Samantha (Vera Farmiga), a tattooed high-school flame who now runs the local picturesque dining establishment — and has a hot daughter (Leighton Meester) to boot. (Cue an uncomfortable strand where Downey Jr. snogs the latter in a bar before discovering the truth, and Farmiga flailing valiantly to turn Samantha into the film’s only amplified female character, which is like watching a thoroughbred trying to win a race being forced to run backwards.)
But the chief architect of Hank’s transformation is Duvall’s imperious patriarch, the judge of the title, who suffers memory loss and harbors a gargantuan medical secret he’s somehow contrived to keep hidden from everyone. It’s a typically gruff part for Duvall — not a vicious martinet of Great Santini levels but nonetheless a household tyrant who feels intense antagonism towards his middle son. The two actors spit venomous hostilities back and forth at each other with appealing brio, and inhabit some pithy scenes together. One sequence in particular — when Hank is forced to clean up his vomiting, defecating father in the bathroom — introduces an unexpected scratchiness into the otherwise sentimental cloak that Dobkin, of “Wedding Crashers” fame, has draped over proceedings.
“The Judge” could have used more of that edge, to be honest, and possibly even dispensed with the strained judicial-thriller device, in which Hank has to defend his father alongside a comically inept co-defender. Although it does bring the welcome addition of Billy Bob Thornton hamming it up as a slick prosecutor out to nail daddy, the various strands begin to feel unwieldy, not helped by some stylistic schizophrenia: moody and grainy for the courtroom sequences, crisp, colorful visuals everywhere else (although Janusz Kaminski is on DP duties so at least it’s always gorgeous).
“The Judge” is at its best when playing as a straightforward father-son relationship drama and zeroing in on its headlining duo’s reconciliation. In the clear belief that Downey Jr. needed a wider scope and more enhanced playing field, though, Dobkin and co. have decorated the stage with too many extraneous bells and whistles. They should have simply trusted the two Roberts to carry the show.