By Gary Murray
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall and Vera Farmiga
Written by Nick Schenk & Bill Dubuque
Directed by David Dobkin
Running time 141 min
MPAA Rating R
Selig Film News Rating Matinee
Robert Downey Jr. has gone from promising young actor to washed-out drug addict to the biggest superhero on the planet in a scant few decades. Between the roles of Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes, he has become a billion dollar box office champion. In between he has been doing smaller roles such as in Chef and Good Night, and Good Luck. In his latest film The Judge, he applies his A-list persona with the independent film vibe.
Hank (Robert Downey Jr.) is a high-priced defense lawyer who gets his guilty clients free. On the legal stage, he’s a shark who always follows the blood trail and ever lets up. He is paid very well for his services. But at home, things are not going well. His wife has been cheating on him and he really, truly does not know his young daughter. Added to all this is his mother suddenly dies.
Traveling back to Carlinville Indiana, he finds that life has not moved forward that much. His father Judge Joseph (Robert Duvall) is still on the bench after four decades, dispensing law with an iron fist. He is a tough old bird and Hank has not been home in over 20 years.
The plot begins to move when Hank and his older brother Glen notice that the judge has a messed-up front-in on his 1971 Caddy. As the boys ponder what happened, the local sheriff comes around for questioning. It seems that a man was killed on a bicycle during a hit-and-run. The man was a notorious thug who the judge went lenient on and who subsequently committed a heinous act.
The police believe that the judge had something to do with the collision. Hank’s defense attorney skills go into high alert but the judge is a stubborn old man who will not stop talking. Eventually, the police arrest the judge.
A special prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) is send down to run the prosecution. He has a grudge to settle with Hank and wants to hang the judge on a Murder in the First Degree conviction. Hank realizes how serious all of this has become in a very short period of time.
Added to preparing for the trial is Hank’s old flame Samantha (Vera Farmiga). She runs the local diner and the local watering hole. Her life still revolves around the small town and she never left her home. But she still carries a torch for Hank.
The elements of family drama, legal drama and romantic drama collide in a series of courtroom scenes. Along the way, we find out why Hank and the judge have been so estranged. It is also about the frailty of old age the concept of you can never truly go home again.
The film is directed by David Dobkin. He has a lot of cinematic plot points to keep up in the air. Part of the film is a father-son story and part is a family drama. There are parts of a mystery in the mix under a giant umbrella of courtroom drama.
The surprising thing about The Judge is how funny it is with characters. There are some solid elements of humor, funny but not joke-funny. They are situational funny. But at nearly 2 ½ hours, it does start to wear out its welcome.
The weakest element is in the courtroom scenes. There is moment upon moment that would have never happened in a simple J.P. court much less a first-degree murder hearing. Time and time again, the audience waited for an “Objection” being yelled by someone, an objection that never comes. The real law and the law of The Judge rarely intersect.
This is one of the stronger performances in the career of Robert Downy Jr. There is this sizzle and snap in the role as if he is channeling the best of Tony Stark with the uber-coolness of his early bad-boy career. It won’t be as revered as Iron Man but it should bring along a different crowd of notices.
What more can be said about Robert Duvall at this point in his career? It is a fine job by one of our senior thespians. He is both commanding and weak within each beat of the scene. This is truly a remarkable performance.
Vera Farmiga is not given much to do her other than be pretty which she does in spades. The screenplay would have been better served by fleshing out her character and back story. There was a lot that was glossed over in this second tier performance.
The Judge is much what one expects it to be, a mix of the familial and lawful. While not the best film on the planet, it does make for an interesting diversion. The verdict comes as no surprise. It is a drama more of community than of courtrooms.