The Judge is an actor’s showcase that gets lost in the weeds of tired family dynamics and clunky subplots. There are moments when Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall are allowed to take their characters into more dangerous places, but mostly they’re just constrained by an uninteresting story. The result is a film that packs no emotional wallop and builds to a conclusion that is neither surprising nor satisfying.
Is it possible to leave your small hometown just because it sucks? Hollywood doesn’t think so. In their mind, people leave because they’re running away from something. That’s just one of the many lazy clichés The Judge uses to pad its generic storyline. In this case, the runner is Hank Palmer (Downey), a motor-mouthed wiseguy of questionable moral character, who fled Jerkwater USA to become a lawyer in Chicago. he sleaziest of defense attorneys, Hank unashamedly quips that, “Innocent people can’t afford me.” It’s the sort of insouciance we’ve come to expect from Downey and he delivers like a true champ.
Much of the film revolves around Hank’s old man, Joseph (Duvall), a fire-and-brimstone judge who took the same approach to raising Hank that he uses to adjudicate cases in his courtroom. The result is a 20-year estrangement that is rudely interrupted by the death of Hank’s mother. While home for the funeral, Hank gets sucked deeper into family drama when The Judge is implicated in the death of a recently-paroled prisoner. This uninspiring set-up is equally littered with uninspiring subplots. His older brother, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), is a former baseball player who could’ve been a contender if not for a fateful car crash (which Hank just happened to cause). Their little brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong), has the type of mental deficiency that makes people adorably inappropriate while still maintaining a childlike innocence (i.e. comic relief). And let’s not forget the high school sweetheart, Sam (Vera Farmiga), who still loves Hank, and who may or may not be the mother of his illegitimate lovechild.
Despite all of this backstory and baggage, director David Dobkin infuses precious little subtext into the proceedings. Each scene plays out with on-the-nose precision, providing no new information, suspense or greater purpose to the story. This makes for some glacial pacing, further exacerbated by a runtime well in excess of two hours. Worse still, the entire film feels strangely bereft of emotion, even forgoing the traditional courtroom summation in favor of a subdued, mumbling conclusion. The Judge is a long movie that feels even longer.
More baffling is how underutilized the actors are in a so-called ‘actor’s film.’ Writers Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque seem content to establish each character’s back-story and then let the audience fill in the gaps. The most egregious example of this is prosecuting attorney Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton). With a name like ‘Dickham’ you expect a worthy adversary to Downey; a harsh slap to his smug face. Instead, Dickham is given an unconvincing motivation for pursuing Hank into the courtroom, and then he is bested by Hank at every single turn. Thornton is left with nothing to do but sit there and look sinister. Likewise, D’Onofrio is given a juicy back-story, but is relegated to a few scenes of blustering or quiet resignation. One wonders what drew talented actors like Thornton and D’Onofrio to such limited roles.
Downey and Duvall have a natural chemistry together, but their individual story arcs are undone by sloppy subplots. The Judge’s health becomes the exhausting focal point of much of the story, and while the script provides some moments of genuine despair, it also limits Duvall to playing the thankless role of powerless victim. The subplot surrounding Hank’s daughter and (soon-to-be ex-) wife adds nothing to his character’s arc, and the love story with Sam is laughably bad. Interestingly, Downey often seems uncomfortable sharing a silence with the audience, like he’s trying to think of something to say. He much prefers careening about the screen with his incessant stream-of-consciousness dialogue. In these moments, either sharing the screen with his co-stars or bloviating to hear his own voice, Downey truly shines. Propped front and center, however, his deficiencies surface when not given an immersive role from a robust script.
The scenes where Duvall and Downey collide are wrought with dramatic potential, as a son finally musters the courage to confront his father’s callous sentencing. There are also moments of mesmerizing beauty, as cinematographer extraordinaire Janusz Kaminski frames his compositions with striking light through picturesque windows. But for every moment that The Judge seems capable of transcending the time-worn courtroom genre, there are two moments when it bores you to tears. Indeed, The Judge’s most egregious crime is being dull.
— J.R. Kinnard