The Judge could be seen as a courtroom drama. The Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall starring film could also be described as a father and son tale of redemption. It’s not that we needed the David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) directed film to decide which it wanted to be because clearly a well written film could be both.
But, can The Judge do both and do it well? It actually manages to weave in between the two mostly well.
Downey is a hot shot Chicago defense attorney who clearly is worth millions and never loses. Duvall is his father and a small town judge. And as The Judge trailer shows us, the two have not gotten along in decades and that’s fine with both parties.
When the family matriarch passes away, Downey comes home -- leaving his wife and daughter behind -- and seeks to pay tribute to his mother, mourn with his brothers and maybe, just maybe, shake his father’s hand at the most.
Downey’s Hank Palmer and Duvall’s Judge Joseph Palmer have chemistry, and oftentimes people forget that it takes a serious thespian connection for two actors to impeccably capture frigidity. These two are downright arctic. But, as Downey is charging to leave town and never look back, he gets a phone call -- his father has been charged with murder.
It is at this point that Duvall and Downey must find a way to at least get along, The judge’s freedom depends on it. But, it won’t be easy. Joseph hires Dax Shepard’s small town lawyer, CP, to represent him, almost to add a professional slap in the face to all the emotional slaps to his son. And as it becomes clear that the big time prosecutor from the big city (Billy Bob Thornton) is coming to “fry” the judge, CP needs help and Hank’s the man.
The Judge does intertwine between the father-son re-building and the case that is the excuse to bring them together at a nice pace. And the thing doesn’t work at all without the talents of Downey and Duvall. The pair truly capture the dad-middle son landscape that is downright rare to find onscreen that works. There are acting fireworks, for sure, but maybe it’s just we’ve seen Downey too many times as Tony Stark that his Hank feels a bit Stark-ish at times.
The supporting cast of The Judge is in many ways, ironically, what carries the film. Vera Farmiga is the conscience of Hank as an old girlfriend who manages to begrudgingly pull the best out of her former love. We can (almost) forgive the lapse in story judgment with a subplot about who is the father to Farmiga’s daughter (Leighton Meester).
Vincent D’Onofrio is fabulous as the brother who never got out of the small town and is now “stuck” raising a family and running a tire business when he could have been so much more. But, the actor who steals the entire movie, our The Judge review has to point out, is Jeremy Strong as the youngest of the Palmer boys, Dale.
Sure, he may be slow and at the beginning we were worried that maybe filmmakers were just using his lack of mental strength as the humor for the film. But, by the closing credits, it becomes clear through his performance that he might just be the glue that holds this entire Palmer clan together.
Is it one of the Top 15 Robert Downey Jr. movies in his career? You bet.