Of all the objections raised to The Judge, acting intensity certainly isn't one of them. The reason this overstuffed movie remains tolerable is the inspired casting of Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. as a combative father and son, and their determination to out-thespian each other.
It is a momentous clash, with Downey pitting "that hyper-verbal vocabulary vomit thing," as a character in The Judge describes his style, against Duvall's impeccable grump. A more dramatically focused movie, easier on the obvious, would do justice to their performances. Director David Dobkin works as if he's being faithful to a dense John Grisham novel that was never written.
Downey plays Hank Palmer, a high-priced Chicago defense attorney who's due for a heavy dose of scripted humility. Hank's trophy wife is filing for divorce, and he's compelled after his mother's death to return to the rural Indiana hometown he swore off years ago.
Carlinville is a place of blueberry festivals and carefully arranged extras doing homespun things on Main Street. It's the judicial domain of Hank's estranged father, Joseph Palmer (Duvall), whose decadeslong tenure on the bench is marked by cornpone justice and lectures on courtroom sanctity.
After the funeral, Joseph apparently commits a hit-and-run on a bicyclist, killing him. Coincidentally, or maybe not, the victim was a former defendant who led to Joseph's worst career mistake. Hank eventually agrees to defend his father, who can't stomach the idea. His wife's death just makes him grouchier.
"Her heart just kind of turned off," says Hank's slow brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong), whose hobby is splicing old home movies into grainy emotional landmines Dobkin stomps upon. Dale is nearly as mopey as eldest brother, Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio), who shares the judge's distaste for Hank. We'll find out sooner or later why everyone's bitter. When we do, it isn't anything we haven't guessed, or these folks shouldn't have gotten over a long time ago.
There's already enough material for a movie, but screenwriters Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque keep piling on. Things get complicated by medical issues, Hank's old girlfriend (Vera Farmiga), her daughter (Leighton Meester) and especially a humorless prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton). Then the complications get complicated, and The Judge grows tiresome long before the big verdict.
But the movie does have Downey and Duvall, an entertaining contrast of acting styles, yet identically and admirably invested, even in claptrap like this.
Contact Steve Persall at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.
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Director: David Dobkin
Cast: Robert Duvall, Robert Downey Jr., Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D'Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Emma Tremblay, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, Ken Howard
Screenplay: Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque
Rating: R; profanity, sexual references
Running time: 141 min.