From the prestigious director of such critically acclaimed classics as Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus, and Shanghai Knights comes The Judge, an uncharacteristically serious, courtroom-based tearjerker. At least in intention, anyway.
We’re as confused as you about the directorial choice, but here we are. Don’t fret, though; The Judge is confused with itself too. Pitched somewhere between a 1980s star vehicle and a naïve bid for Oscars, The Judge is an unremarkable, unambitious, and over-extended drama. Or is it a comedy?
The Judge is a hybrid legal/familial ordeal, comprised of clichés, abrupt revelations, and big moments, glued together with some of the cheapest jokes money can buy. Above all, it’s an excuse for Robert Downey Jr. to make another superhero film where he’s arrogant and always right. He’s Tony Stark sans the mechanical suit, ruder than ever. RDJ as a snarky lawyer is a genius pitch on paper, at least, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Downey Jr. is Hank Palmer, a big-shot, high-priced Chicago lawyer that works for well-off crooks, pissing off (and literally on) “honest” lawyers. Hank gets the call from his father, Joseph (an exhausted Robert Duvall), The Judge. Hank’s mother passed. She was watering hydrangeas, and then just stopped. Hank has to split and tend to his family in southern Indiana.
Under oath, now: do you recall any of the following from other courtroom dramas? Joseph was a hard-ass on Hank, and there’s bitterness both ways. The Judge takes a stance of small-town resentment for Hank’s city-dweller ways and abandonment complex. There’s a courtroom climax with speechifying and single tears at precise moments (not a spoiler in any way whatsoever). There’s a tough-talking ex-girlfriend (the wonderful Vera Farmiga) who will forever be a townie. Billy Bob Thornton shows up as a villainous prosecutor with a secret past and a collapsible metal cup that sounds like a sword being drawn when he opens it. Hank has an older brother with lost dreams and hopes. Oh, and there’s Hank’s mentally impaired younger brother, used not only for awkwardly timed non sequiturs, but simplified exposition as well.
The script is so utterly stock, both intellectually and emotionally lazy. There are no distinct qualities, or any kind of through-line for that matter. One wonders if it started within a singular genre, and as shooting progressed it overburdened itself while trying to be a crowd-pleaser. And The Judge has a few scant moments where you see this blend work. In one scene, the Judge becomes graphically ill, vomiting and relieving his bowels. Then Hank shows up to help the Judge clean himself up, quietly and compassionately. It’s a fragile moment. Then, at just the right time, Hank’s daughter shows up for a knock knock joke. It runs the course of everything the film wants to be rather well.
But that’s one moment in the middle of Downey Jr. being Downey Jr., now with zero discipline. He’s still wearing rock band shirts, offering rambling references to Atticus Finch, getting called Dershowitz, saying things with such speed and slickness that he’s finally become too hard to understand. So yes, Hank Palmer is the Stark persona that people seem to like, unfiltered. What a mess that is.
To be honest, Downey Jr. playing a lawyer is a great idea. It’s a profession of needed arrogance, assurance, and intelligence. You have to walk into a courtroom ready to argue and be thought of as an asshole. At times, Downey Jr. can really work a room, advising a Podunk lawyer on where to vomit before a trial, calling out barflies for obvious rap sheets, and swearing he’ll “subpoena someone’s ass” and really meaning it. But Downey fails to make himself charming or memorable or compelling. He’s really starting to look anxious and strained in everything he’s in. Farmiga nails it, looking Downey Jr. in the eyes and letting him know, “You’re a dick.” Boy, is he ever.
Dobkin’s wannabe-Mike Nichols outing is exhausting and uncertain of itself until the end. Like Hank, The Judge will say and do anything to win over the jury of public opinion, but look at the facts, and you’ll see nothing but pandering.