David Dobkin previously directed broad comedies such as Wedding Crashers and The Change-Up, and now he’s moved to broad drama with his latest feature, The Judge, a movie that clumsily grasps at every heartstring you have. It’s a soft-focus weepy that rarely elicits any emotion. Instead, the film feels made to showcase Robert Downey Jr‘s acting ability by proving he can do more than play variations of Tony Stark. While the movie succeeds in showing the actor’s range, it still feels indulgent as it piles on plotlines instead of keeping the focus on the chemistry between Downey and co-star Robert Duvall.
Hank Palmer (Downey) is a cocky attorney who has little respect for the law as he helps wealthy clients evade justice. When he learns that his mother has died, he reluctantly returns home to his small, Midwestern town, which he tried so hard to escape because he despises his father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall). When Joseph is accused of murdering an ex-convict, Hank decides to defend his father even though he’s constantly being pushed away. While in town, Hank also tries to mend fences with his brothers Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong) as well high-school girlfriend Samantha (Vera Farmiga).
The world revolves around Hank as everyone needs to pitch in and make him a better person. It’s not enough to repair the bond with his estranged father. He also needs to make amends for how he ignored the rest of his family, ran out on Sam, ruined his marriage, and neglected his daughter, Lauren (Emma Tremblay). Also, the prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton) has a grudge against Hank. Oh, and Joseph might be having trouble with his mental faculties. And just for good measure, there’s also the possibility Hank fathered an illegitimate child with Sam. The movie seems to be laboring under the notion that if the plot piles on more stuff, it will be emotionally heavier rather than tedious.
Instead of telling a compelling drama, The Judge ends up turning into the The Robert Downey Jr. Dramatic Showcase, and on the one hand, I like seeing this Downey. Even when he’s not playing Tony Stark, he’s still playing Tony Stark—the quick-witted, arrogant guy who’s not all bad—and that’s still in this movie. Those who have seen Downey in his smaller films know that he can do more, and it’s nice to see him show off some range in a wide-release picture like The Judge. There’s just no reason we need to give him 141 minutes to do it. You could cut the Sam subplot out of the movie, and nothing would be lost.
The heart of the story is Hank and Joseph. Give Downey and Duvall the space to play off each other, and you’ll get great drama from it. But Dobkin constantly shows a lack of confidence as feels the need to be overbearing almost all the time. When Downey and Duvall are having a screaming match, they have to do it in the middle of the tornado because IT’S A WHIRLWIND OF EMOTION. If they’re in the courtroom, it all has to be in the prettiest light possible because the law IS THE NOBLEST THING EVER. And if that’s not enough, Dale carries around an 8mm camera solely for the purpose of showing us old home videos because REMEMBER THE GOOD TIMES.
And one of the best scenes in the movie is completely removed from this overblown drama. It’s a small, intimate moment that will be recognizable to anyone who has ever had to take care of a sick parent. Dobkin pulls back, and lets the scene play out with respect and even a little bit of good-natured humor. It’s a sweet moment that doesn’t feel saccharine like the majority of the picture.
Sadly, The Judge mostly prefers to make its small, family drama as grandiose as possible because that’s the only thing that can heal someone as “damaged” as Hank even though he’s not really that extraordinary. He’s getting divorced, he needs to spend more time with his kid, and get along better with his dad and brothers. Hank Palmer isn’t special even though The Judge works so damn hard to convince us that this is the most important story ever told because Robert Downey Jr. is in a drama with Robert Duvall.