You get value for your money in Robert Downey’s Jr’s new film “The Judge.” Stepping away from the superhero movies that made him a household name, he stars in a film with so many story shards and plot derivations you need a scorecard to keep up.
It’s a legal drama. No, it’s a manboy coming-of-age story. Wait! It’s also romance, a dramedy, a father-and-son tale and a mystery. The only genres missing are horror and science fiction and I suspect they will be included on the director’s cut Blu Ray.
Downey Jr is Hank Palmer, a hotshot defense lawyer. He’ll do anything to win and is proud of it. “Everybody wants Atticus Finch,” he says, “until there’s a dead hooker in the hot tub.” In court he’s Iron Man, an unstoppable force with a thick skin and a quick line. He’s the same outside of court as well, except when it comes to his father.
He’s been estranged from Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) for years—“He’s dead to me.”—but is forced to see him when his mother passes away. Returning to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana for the funeral Hank must confront the life he left behind—ex-girlfriend Samantha (Vera Farmiga), brothers Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong) and his cold-fish father. The quick in-and-out trip is extended, however, when the Judge is accused of murder and Hank becomes his lawyer.
“The Judge” feels like Oscar bait. It’s a long movie with a wide story arc that gives its leads ample opportunity to strut their stuff. Downey hands in a solid, if somewhat familiar performance while Duvall plays elder statesman, resurrecting the alpha male feel of “The Great Santini.” Both are used to good effect and the supporting cast keeps things humming along despite a story that pushes credulity to the limit.
The devil is in the details and when the details, no matter how small they are, verge on silly, they become a distraction.
Most of the silly stuff comes in the form of the clues Hank pieces together while forming the Judge’s defense and the trial itself. There will be no spoilers here, but suffice to say the whole thing hinges on a bit of information so implausible that it gives new meaning to the term suspension of disbelief. Trouble is, it didn’t have to be that way. There were any number of ways to establish the point in question (OK, HERE’S A MILD SPOILER ALERT: It involves chemotherapy and a cottage) without trying so hard, but that’s not the kind of film this is.
“The Judge” is the hardest working movie in show business. It’s a film that wants to check all the boxes and tries just a little too hard. Downey and Co. float above it all, however, touching down every now and again to introduce a new plot twist and deliver the occasional touching moment.