Watching “The Judge” is a bit like watching the Super Bowl when your favorite team isn’t playing- you don’t really care about the outcome, you just want to sit back and enjoy the entertainment as the two best teams in the league go head-to-head. At least, that was the feeling I got while watching Robert Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr. chew on scenes for two and a half hours.
The plot of the film meanders a lot, but focuses on the father-son relationship between Hank Palmer (Downey) and Joseph Palmer (Duvall). Hank, a high-profile attorney, left home as fast as he could when he went to law school. Joseph, the town judge, stayed home in Indiana with his other two sons, where he was respected and feared in the chair. At one point he sentenced a deadbeat dad to transfer his car title over to his pregnant lover so she can then sell it back to the dealer and collect alimony. He’s no-nonsense and curmudgeonly, a perfect role for Duvall.
When Hank’s mother dies while he’s in court, he leaves right in the middle of a trial to catch a flight home. There’s enough tension and uneasiness among the three brothers and the Judge to tell the audience that this is going to be a male tear-jerker, a movie where fathers and sons argue and reconnect after a tragedy. The script is cliched and predictable.
On the night of his wife’s funeral, Joseph goes out to buy some eggs when he comes into contact with a murderer he sentenced years before. The next morning, that murere’s blood is on the grille of joesph’s car. He doesn’t know how it got there. Hank is forced to defend his father.
What follows is a legal procedure hybrid of “A Few Good Men,” “Lincoln Lawyer,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” and every other courtroom film you can think of. There’s even a nice “Atticus Finch” reference tossed in for good measure. Oh, and there’s a cancer subplot and a lost love interest (Vera Farmiga), and a bunch of time is spent talking about “That Night”- the turning point from every movie where the main character decides to leave town after a horrible event.
While the script is paint-by numbers, it still paints a nice picture. The stylistic cinematography of Indiana cornfields and unique courtroom shots make up for the lack of substance in the shots. The roles of Joseph and Hank, in the hands of anyone else, would have made this just another sappy father-son tale, but Downey and Duvall elevate the script to places it couldn’t have gone otherwise.
One scene in particular, where Hank has to help clean his father up after chemo-induced vomiting, is a testament to thier acting chops, and it’s a wonder to behold. Other times, when Hank is cross-examining his own father or when they’re arguing with each other, make you realize just how much viewers take these actors’ skills for granted.
However, when the film deviates from the Hank-Joseph conflict, it falters. Farmiga’s character’s plot goes nowhere. Billy Bob Thornton is wasted as a state attorney prosecuting Joseph, and when he is in the picture, he’s painted as a villain. A backstory involving how older brother Glen’s baseball career got shortchanged by Hank is relegated to a few lines of dialogue, and the entire character of Dale borders on cliches. It’s like the writers said, “Hey, why not include a mentally disabled person, if only to show that Joseph can be tender towards someone?” It’s a cop-out.
By the end of the film, you don’t even care if Joseph is innocent or guilty, you just want to see how the familial drama is going to play out.
Maybe the reason why it’s so enjoyable watching Downey and Duvall is because they’re so typecast that they are both playing the characters we’ve come to expect from them. Hank is basically Iron Man without the suit, all 90-mile-an-hour dialogue and smarmy charm. Duvall is all old school and doesn’t give a damn. If you’ve seen “Kicking and Screaming,” “Secondhand Lions,” “Crazy Heart,” or any other Duvall film of the past 10 years, you get the picture. But that doesn’t mean they’re not fun to watch. “The Judge” is predictable, but it’s worth a Redbox rental.