Movie review: ‘The Judge’
* * * (B)
Directed by David Dobkin
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Billy Bob Thornton, Leighton Meester, Emma Tremblay
Rated R, Drama, 140 minutes
During “The Judge” we forget, and then are reminded, that the story is shambling its way toward an overly contrived resolution. In its better moments, reaching that goal is far less important than is each character coming to terms with years of denial. Those bursts of self recognition are candles drawing us to the flame.
Robert Downey Jr. plays Hank Palmer, the son of small-town judge and sometimes harsh father, Joseph Palmer, portrayed by Robert Duvall. Hank is a smarmy, insightful attorney who both charms and repels us. His father is one-part Judge Judy, one-part salt of the earth and one-part ghost. He verbally roughs up those deserving it and dispenses the law with a fair practicality. In the judge’s personal life, a reticence to make eye contact or have real conversations indicates he is a keeper of secrets.
Likewise, Hank has drawn a circumference of emotional space around himself, where no one, including his young daughter Lauren (Emma Tremblay), dares trespass.
Long estranged from his father and standing at the precipice of his own failed marriage, New York City lawyer Hank is drawn home by his mother’s death. It’s a place and time he’d rather forget, except that Hank seems genuinely pleased to spend time with his brothers Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong), not to mention reacquainting himself with his high school sweetheart Samantha (Vera Farmiga).
Hank’s plan to escape his father’s disapproving glare after a few days is altered when dad is accused of murder, and Hank’s expertise is needed to defend him at trial. Putting up a good defense entails unravelling his father’s secrets, a slow, laborious process that finds Hank both empathizing and disagreeing with the constraints his father has placed upon his own defense.
Billy Bob Thornton does an understated turn as prosecuting attorney Dwight Dickham, nearly Hank’s equal in wit and easier to like. Just as Duvall and Downey ignite the story with their on-screen chemistry, Thornton sparks his segments with quiet, but intense, righteous indignation.
Speaking of juries, Hank proposes two succinct test questions for weeding out potential jurors. It’s an instant classic.
Where the film shines during its courtroom scenes it stumbles as often as it rises to the occasion of its family drama. Flawed but appealing characters, played to within an inch of the possibilities, go a far stretch toward placating disappointment, as do the few scenes that brave difficult truths.
Though the film is a long way from being all it could be, the cast of “The Judge” gives testimony that will make you want to acquit the film of most cinematic crimes.