About a month ago, I reviewed ‘This is Where I Leave You’, and I noted in that review that the film was a change of pace for director for Shawn Levy, a director who has primarily been known for comedies. The same can be said about ‘The Judge’ in how it’s a far different film than what director David Dobkin usually makes. Dobkin’s directorial career (not counting some of the movies he’s produced/co-written like ‘Jack the Giant Slayer’) has been entirely defined by comedies with his most famous film being the 2005 comedy ‘Wedding Crashers’. ‘The Judge’ is Dobkin’s first drama (as a director) and it has a pretty nice ensemble cast that is headlined by not one, but two Roberts in Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. But at the moment, ‘The Judge’ is currently receiving mixed reviews from critics. And while it’s true that this film is not really the best film to come out this year, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film… not at all. Sure, it has some flaws but it does manage to be pretty entertaining and at times it really does get to you on an emotional level. It seems like the filmmakers were trying to make a movie that would be a real ‘crowd pleaser’ and if you ask me, I think that they did succeed in that regard.
Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is a hot-shot lawyer who is regarded as being one of the best defense attorneys in Chicago. On the day of his latest trial, Hank gets a call from his brother who tells him that their mother has just died. Though rather reluctant to return to his hometown, he does return home to Carlinville, Indiana, where he reunites with his brothers Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong) and their father Joseph (Robert Duvall), the town’s local judge with whom Hank has had a difficult relationship with for years. Just a few days after the funeral, Joseph ends up being accused of a hit and run. Also, the victim just so happens to be a former delinquent who he had given a ‘lenient sentence’ years before, which then resulted in the man killing his girlfriend after his sentence was up. With his father’s reputation on the line, Hank ends up becoming his lawyer in court against prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), who is determined to make sure that Joseph ends up behind bars, leaving Hank in a tough position as he tries to prove that his father is not a murderer.
‘The Judge’ admittedly can be rather predictable at times in terms of where the story is heading. That and the film might just be a bit too overstuffed with characters, as some don’t really get enough character development due to the fact that the film focuses more on the relationship between Hank and Joseph. Still, the movie does manage to be pretty entertaining despite those two issues. While it is primarily a drama, there are quite a few comedic lines (which isn’t that surprising given Dobkin’s experience in comedy) thrown in which do lighten the mood at just the right moments. The film is also incredibly well-shot, with excellent cinematography work by Steven Spielberg’s go-to cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski. It could be argued that the film sometimes tries a bit too hard to elicit an emotional response from the audience as it tugs on the heartstrings. It may be true at times, but other times the film does have some genuinely effective emotional moments, particularly between Hank and Joseph. We see how strained their relationship has become, as it is revealed that Hank was a bit of a troublemaker when he was younger. This resulted in Joseph being hard on him but as he puts it, ‘he did what he thought was right’ and really he was right as it meant that Hank was able to turn his life around and become the successful lawyer that he is today.
The film’s biggest strength is easily its cast. Robert Downey Jr. is… well, Robert Downey Jr. He’s one of the best actors currently working today and films like this prove that he can do great in roles other than Iron Man. There is a little bit of the same snarkiness of Tony Stark in the character of Hank but not as much. It’s a much more subdued character but also one with a chip on his shoulder given his past and his relationship with his father and Downey Jr. handles the role perfectly. Speaking of his father, Duvall is also fantastic here as well. The character does come off as a grouchy old man most of the time but other times you do sympathize with him, particularly in scenes where he begins to show his age, like to the point where he even forgets the name of the bailiff who he has worked with for 20 years. The best scenes in the movie are when Downey Jr. and Duvall are on-screen together as they really work off each other incredibly well. But they are backed up by a rock-solid supporting cast as well, including D’Onofrio, Thornton, Dax Shepard as the lawyer that Joseph first hires to defend him in court, and Vera Farmiga as Hank’s former girlfriend from High School.
Robert Downey Jr. has been quoted as saying that ‘The Judge’ is an ‘Audience Movie’ and in the end that perfectly defines this movie. Right now, it’s getting fairly mixed reviews from critics so it probably won’t get any major buzz during awards season. But that’s okay because the film isn’t really trying to be something it’s not. It’s just a nice simple drama that manages to be entertaining. Sure, it’s rather predictable at times. Sure, it’s a little too overlong and overstuffed. Sure, it probably tries a bit too hard at times to tug at the heartstrings. But really, I didn’t mind about this that much. Despite the occasional predictability of the script and the two and a half hour runtime, I was still engrossed in the story and there were some truly effective emotional moments, namely between Hank and his father. Really, whenever Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall are on-screen together, that is where the movie really shines. I’m not saying ‘The Judge’ is the best movie that I’ve seen this year but at the same time I don’t think it’s a ‘bad’ movie. It’s a ‘crowd-pleaser’ and those are exactly the kind of movies that I love to watch. In other words, ‘The Judge’ may not be an Oscar-worthy film but it’s worth checking out, primarily for the performances from its two leads.