There is no question that director David Dobkin is going for the jugular with his flawed melodrama “The Judge,” featuring Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall and Vera Farmiga.
Up for debate, however, is whether or not “The Judge” sets the bar too high, and sometimes it does. But it has lofty ambitions, nonetheless.
The film sets up Downey as a win-at-any-cost big city attorney (Hank Palmer) who has to return to his hometown in Carlinville, Indiana, for his mother’s funeral. He is, however, so angry that he has spent years avoiding the place, much of that as a way of avoiding Duvall (Joseph Palmer) , his father, a small town judge, who has tough love down like a railroad spike. He is ferocious and guarded, but unwavering in his honesty. He thinks the law is about truth, while Downey believes it is about keeping guilty crooks out of jail.
While this is a film about truth, it puts love on the auction block. Is love worthwhile if the truth is corrupted? In this film, Downey sits on one shoulder like the Devil in a red robe, while Duvall is perched on the other shoulder as a grumpy Angel of truth.
With that in mind, after the funeral, just as the family is learning to despise each other again, the plot thickens when Judge Palmer falls off the wagon while grieving his wife’s death and returns home one rainy night with a banged up car.
In the grill of the car is the blood of a man Judge Palmer sent away to prison for 30 years – a man with no remorse for his crimes whatsoever. Down the road is the man’s corpse.
The judge turns to a local lawyer with integrity to argue his case, only to find the rube knows less about going to trial than a bricklayer.
This forces the judge to turn to his son for a courtroom battle that weighs honesty against family dysfunction, which is a bit of a derailment. Suddenly, it’s truth versus love rather than truth versus deceit.
The film has its moments. In the first place, this is Downey and Duvall we’re talking about – two of the most remarkable actors in the business. But this is insect versus woodchuck, because neither Downey nor Duvall will ever win any awards for being lovable.
Fun, but disappointing is the film’s back story — the girl Palmer left behind when he was fleeing the heehaw town and his grouchy father and the two brothers, Vincent D’Onofrio (as Glen Palmer) and Jeremy Strong (as Dale Palmer).
These scenes are less convincing (and unnecessary), especially as Strong plays an intellectually challenged man, who somehow always comes up with the killer line every time, like an idiot version of a deadpan comic. This is supposed to be endearing, but it comes across as sad and subtracts credibility from the rest of the script.
Also appearing are Billy Bob Thorton as Dwight Dickham, the opposing attorney, Farmiga as the jilted ex-girlfriend and Emma Tremblay as Palmer’s daughter Lauren. They all put in credible performances.