The Judge is the kind of film that we supposedly don’t make anymore. It’s a male-centric family melodrama with high profile actors in the main roles. In a different time, this would feel like an event film, but while the buzz isn’t rapturous, there is still a lot to like about the film from director David Dobkin (Shanghai Knights, Wedding Crashers) and screenplay by Nick Schenk (Grand Torino) and Bill Bubuque.
The film opens with Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) as the slickest defense attorney around, specializing in defense resting on technicality and exploiting the lawto let the guilty go free. He is suddenly called back to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana, for the first time in 18 years after his mother passes away. There he reconnects with his father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), his brothers Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), and Dale (Jeremy Palmer), and his ex Samantha (Vera Farmiga). When the elder Palmer’s car is found with blood on the bumper on the same night one of the most hated men in town is found dead, Hank must defend his father in court, facing off against prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) and his past.
In a way, The Judge is an example of a film that is unspoilerable. I could describe the entire plot of the film in great detail, and yet the film would not be ruined. Partially because everything that happens in the film is telegraphed from the first few minutes, and because the fun here comes not from the twists and turns of the plot so much as watching these actors bounce off one another for both comedic and dramatic effect. It’s a classically structured film, and character motivations, foreshadowing, and set ups are well-telegraphed for viewers.
But I refuse to see this as a downside. For one, it’s not like Robert Downey, Jr. or Robert Duvall are doing anything we haven’t seen from them before. Downey plays a version of Tony Stark or Sherlock Holmes, rattling off wry observation and sarcastic one-liners at all turns, and Duvall maintains his curmudgeonly demeanor from films such as Get Low. An obvious story needs to be well-executed, and The Judge does so admirably.
Not that the film doesn’t have some issues. For one, outside of Farmiga, the female characters are complete window dressing. I don’t think that Glen’s wife actually has a line of dialogue even though she is present in at least two scenes. While the film does focus entirely on Hank, his father, and a his brothers, the presence of women is felt but not seen (or heard).
A pleasant, although not revelatory experience, The Judge is a decent enough actor showcase, and not a bad way to spend an evening.
The Judge opens today in Philly area theaters.