Silver Screen: The Judge *1/2
If The Judge seems a little thick in the middle with its nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time, it’s because the filmmakers have made two movies, a broad, overwrought family drama and a pretty decent legal thriller, then mashed them together. There was bound to be some overflow.
Both movies star Robert Downey Jr. as Hank Palmer. In one he’s an amoral downtown Chicago lawyer as slick as wet crystal, the kind of self-assured powerbroker just begging to be put in his place by a homespun ex-girlfriend and have his attitude tempered by the gentle wisdom of the folks he left behind. In the other movie his icy calculations are all that can save his father (Robert Duvall), an aging judge accused of murdering a guilty man he once set free.
As Hank, Downey is consistent, although the movie shifts around him awkwardly. At one moment he’s supposed to use his hypervigilant mind to draw out key details in a perilously close murder case, and in the next he’s asked to slip into a worn Metallica concert T-shirt and ride his old bike through the countryside while overbearing music lets us know he’s doing some nostalgic contemplating. Downey can do both quite well, but watching the movie lurch from one side to another could induce seasickness.
Hank is back in town for the first time in many years, returned for his mother’s funeral. He stayed away because of a longstanding feud with his domineering father, who even his family just calls Judge, over an incident everyone talks circles around so it won’t be revealed until the final act. Hank reconnects with his brothers (Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) and runs into that inevitable ex-girlfriend (Vera Farmiga), but before he can hop the first plane out the Judge is connected to a hit-and-run accident. When the case takes a dark turn, Hank is forced to defend both his father’s life and his legacy.
The Judge is a solid character-driven legal thriller, one more in the mold of a Scott Turow novel or Sidney Lumet’s classic The Verdict than a John Grisham potboiler. The family drama that curdles into melodrama actually works quite well as backstory to raise the stakes for the courtroom action and provide the movie with a little soul. The two incarnations of the film do merge nicely in a climactic testimonial scene, but by then the whole proceeding has lapsed into courtroom histrionics, and the filmmakers have started blindly grasping at any heartstrings within reach.
That’s not to say The Judge is without its affecting moments. Any scene anchored by Downey and Duvall is bound to be compelling, and their exchanges here are sometimes powerful. They’re two of the best actors of their respective generations, and they’re able to significantly smooth over the movie’s overall tonal inconsistency.
But no amount of powerhouse acting can distract entirely from The Judge’s clumsier moments. Shepard’s local legal bumpkin can’t just be outclassed in court, he’s got to be a stammering goof who knocks over books and throws up at the thought of appearing in court. When director David Dobkin introduces the movie’s antagonist, a chilly prosecutor played by the great Billy Bob Thornton, he doesn’t trust the exceptional actor to convey the character’s disdain for our hero and his father. It’s not even enough to play ominous bad-guy music as the camera pans around him like he’s an Imperial Star Destroyer. No, Thornton’s silver-haired, serpentine lawyer actually carries a metal telescoping camping cup emblazoned with a hula dancer that he flicks out like a switchblade. It’s an astonishingly stupid Screenwriter 101 affectation (“Show us a totem that represents your character’s inner self,” Robert McKee says to a roomful of Hollywood hopefuls), one the movie abandons entirely before calling back to it too late in the game.
And these are just The Judge’s venal sins. The film is at its worst when dealing with Hank’s mentally handicapped brother Dale (Jeremy Strong), whose obsession with a super-eight camera and blunt declarations are played mostly for laughs, except when he’s turned into a human ploy for sympathy. It’s unforgivable. Yet it’s still not the most puzzling inclusion in an overstuffed movie that also includes a bizarre incest subplot, which Dobkin queasily teases for awhile before playfully downgrading it to a lesser degree of incest. Regardless of the final verdict, the filmmakers should feel guilty.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.