**1/2 (out of 5)
October 10, 2014
Robert Downey Jr. as HANK PALMER
Robert Duvall as JOSEPH PALMER
Vera Farmiga as SAMANTHA POWELL
Billy Bob Thornton as DWIGHT DICKHAM
Vincent D’Onofrio as GLEN PALMER
Jeremy Strong as DALE PALMER
Dax Shepard as C.P. KENNEDY
Leighton Meester as CARLA POWELL
Studio: Warner Bros.
Directed by: David Dobkin
BY KEVIN CARR
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“The Judge” is the kind of movie that offers no surprises – in its plot or in its release – but it’s also the kind of movie about which I tend to shrug and say, “Well, it’s gonna happen.”
This film is such obvious award-bait for everyone involved, and the only key player who is any bit of a surprise in the whole mix is director David Dobkin. Known best for screwball comedies like “Wedding Crashers” and “Fred Claus,” Dobkin is clearly trying to cut his dramatic teeth. Sure, the film is billed partly as a comedy, but at its heart, it’s meant to be a serious tear-jerker. Whether those tears are actually jerked from anyone’s eyes is doubtful, though.
This is also obviously Robert Downey Jr. trying to make some more movie magic happen outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (even thought he invoked the power of said Universe to help promote this new movie when he hinted at a possibility of doing “Iron Man 4”). He pulled the same stunt after “Iron Man 2” when he made the darker comedy “Due Date” with Todd Phillips at the helm.
So, does it work as a film to save Dobkin from a neverending comedy career and Downey from being shackled forever to Marvel? Not really. Downey does a fine job acting, and against some other powerhouse names like Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton and Vincent D’Onofrio, it’s a well-acted movie. However, the biggest crime that “The Judge” commits is not having a single original thought to it.
The story follows a hot-shot lawyer named Hank Palmer (Downey) from the big city who has to come back home to small-town Indiana for his mother’s funeral. Here, he must reconnect with his estranged family, including his brothers and his distant father (Robert Duvall), a respected judge in the county. Just as he’s about to head home, Hank finds out his father has been arrested for murder when his car is suspected to have run a man off the road.
Movies about the cold-hearted yuppie returning home to reconcile with his past are a dime a dozen in Hollywood. The same goes for dysfunctional family films. Heck, we’ve seen two pretty high profile examples of the latter in just the last year, and both of those also used the death in the family as a device (these examples being “August: Osage County” and “This Is Where I Leave You”).
Again, this film is exceptionally well acted, and the players do a lot with what they are given. It’s just too bad they aren’t given enough to really make the movie great.
At the same time Hank is reconciling with his father, his brothers, his old girlfriend, etc., the film struggles to also keep the trial in focus. Because Hank is such a great lawyer, he insists on helping his father beat the charges. However, the movie moves so lickety-split through the murder trial, you get the sense this is only happening over the course of a couple weeks.
I would have preferred to see more of the courtroom drama than the family drama because that interested me more. Still, in the end, there are no real surprises, even if the movie presents itself like there are.
As I said before, the saving grace of this film is the cast, which works tirelessly to overcome the lack of focus and the bloated running time of 142 minutes. And I didn’t hate the film as I’ve heard some critics did. However, in the end, “The Judge” simply tries too hard with too much to deliver too little.