The Judge is a slickly entertaining package, beautifully photographed on well-chosen locations populated with actors that handle this material with off-handed ease. It’s the kind of legal courtroom drama we’ve seen a thousand times before. Although, nobody told leads, Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall, both of whom devour their scenes and faithfully perform as if they’re in another, better movie. The result is a commercial product of ‘importance’ run through the Hollywood mill, homogenized, drawn-out, and given a shiny gloss.
Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.) is a high-priced lawyer, who specializes in representing clients with dubious backgrounds. As the film starts we meet Hank as he orally tangles with the opposing counsel in the men’s room. This scene illustrates that Downey is still the master linguist of quick witticism in movies today, and this is a sort of vanity project for the thespian who is now most notably associated with Iron Man. At any rate, Hank’s mom passes away causing him to leave his comfortable pad in Chicago in order to travel to Indiana, to attend the funeral. Once back on home soil, he is greeted by his brothers Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong), the long period of absence is not reflected in their affection for one another. However, Hank’s frosty relationship with his father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) is just as bitter as ever. Tensions rise quickly and Hank declares his intentions to head back to Chicago immediately following the services.
These plans are unexpectedly disrupted by a car accident involving his father. At first the incident appears minor and harmless, but as details emerge the charges grow more serious. Soon, Judge is on trial for first degree murder and voluntary vehicular manslaughter in the death of a former defendant, while drunk behind the wheel. The legal counsel assigned to the case is ridiculously ill-equipped for such a trial, forcing Hank to step in and defend the father he can’t stand. Former MTV personality Dax Shepard is winning in his underplayed turn as the local lawyer in over his head. He is a sort of sidekick to Downey’s fast-talking legal eagle.
As the courtroom drama unfolds, Downey’s character finds himself falling in love with the local bartender, Carla (Vera Farmiga). The two dated back in high-school but their romance was cut short by Hank’s flighty nature. Now, over two decades later they begin to rekindle. Though, Carla’s 21yr. old daughter (Leighton Meester) gives Hank pause, and is used as a running gag to whether she is his offspring. Billy Bob Thornton plays the prosecuting attorney and his slimy southern delivery suits the role. The Judge is too lightweight and at times too precious for serious OSCAR consideration, but it is solid entertainment for those still impressed by professionals elevating route material through sheer talent.
Director: David Dobkin
Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vincent D’Onofrio