On paper, or perhaps just based on the trailer, The Judge seems like a perfectly sound movie that could potentially vie for an Oscar spot at the upcoming Academy Awards. But then you start to notice certain things about it. Like how its director is David Dobkin, whose previous credits include Wedding Crashers and The Change-Up. Or how it’s over 140 minutes long without any need to be. Or how predictable and generic it is. The Judge isn’t exactly bad, but it’s not going to live up to any Oscar buzz it might have gotten before it was seen by anyone.
Our lead is a hot-shot lawyer named Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.), someone who only defends guilty clients because they’re the only ones who can afford him. He’s estranged from his family, begins the film in a fight with his wife, and doesn’t spend enough time with his kid. At least some of this will change by the end. He’s thrown an early curveball when he receives a call that his mother has passed away. He doesn’t seem the most upset, but he’s not happy about it, either; his mother was the only member of his family to whom he still spoke.
So, it’s goodbye big city and hello small town. Hank greets his brothers, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong), fine, but he and his father, Judge Joe Palmer (Robert Duvall) barely speak. The funeral takes place, a little bit of tension is felt, and then Hank finds himself on a plane back home. But he gets a call. His father is being charged with murder. I hope you can see exactly where this is going.
If you can’t, it involves fighting and reconciliation, really terrible courtroom drama segments, more fighting and reconciliation, and very little more. Oh, there’s a subplot involving an old flame (Vera Farmiga), and a rivalry with the prosecution’s lawyer (Billy Bob Thorton), but it’s mostly centered on Hank’s relationship with his father. That’s fine, but it’s as cliché as you can get. There is only one surprise in the film, and it doesn’t come from the plot. It’s … kind of gross, actually, so I won’t mention exactly what it is. But it’s just one scene for which you might wish you weren’t eating any popcorn.
Not much of the film amounts to anything. Sure, it’s kind of fun to see Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall fight for a while, but for 140 minutes? There isn’t enough variety. There isn’t enough point. A main dichotomy makes us want to choose between what’s “right,” and what’s right. Should Judge Palmer get off on a technicality, or should he serve his time even though there isn’t conclusive evidence that he killed anyone intentionally — but he thinks he did it. And what about his legacy? What will become of that?
This isn’t enough to think about and the film doesn’t really have much to say about it all, anyway. We’re mostly here just to see Downey, Jr. act all smart, charming and funny, Robert Duvall act old and cranky, and to see them fight. Most everything else doesn’t matter, and that’s really why it falls apart. There’s nothing here to sink our teeth into, or to think about. Once you get past the fighting, there isn’t much else.
The acting is good. You have a lot of talent in the cast, and it would take really terrible filmmakers to have them turn in a bad performance in a film like this one. In fact, The Judge comes most alive during smaller instances that don’t involve the two main characters. I mean, usually one of them will be present, but instead of playing off one another, they get to interact with other people. It feels more genuine, not as forced, and most importantly, less generic.
The Judge is not a bad movie. It’s not worth sitting through, and feels more like a mixtape of earlier, better movies, but it’s not bad. It’s not terribly entertaining, and once you get past the initial awe of seeing Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall clashing, there isn’t much to see — and it runs for 140 minutes. It lacks depth and purpose. That’s the main problem. It wants to base everything on the father-son relationship, and it’s not interesting enough to justify the running time.