The Judge

Directed By: David Dobkin

Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D'Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, and Billy Bob Thornton

Everyone to whom I've spoken seems excited about The Judge, except me.  I've been cautiously optimistic about the film.  With its high voltage of star power, this movie could be great or just decent.  The Academy Award winners and nominees in the cast alone send the expectations through the roof for this presumed Oscar bait.  Still, I remained reserved in any anticipation of the film.  There was something about the film that didn't ooze with greatness for me.  Oddly enough, I still can't quite put my finger on it, but I was right.  Let's just call it a critic's intuition.

Though an accomplished criminal defense attorney who is undoubtedly the best verdict money can buy, Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) is not exactly living the life.  His wife Lisa (Sarah Lancaster) cheated on him with a former lover.  His relationship with his daughter is strained thanks to his workaholic lifestyle.  On top of these two problems, his mother passes away suddenly from a blood clot that traveled up to her heart.  Now, he dreads returning to his small town home Carlinsville, Indiana to attend her funeral and grieve with his family. Though his mother is now dead, he must now go see a man who has been dead to him for years, his father Judge Joe Palmer (Robert Duvall).

While the niceties of this solemn occasion mean that everyone is on their best behavior, it's crystal clear that there's no love lost between Hank and his father Joe.  His brothers Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong) certainly take notice.  While the brothers go out to a local bar run by Hank's ex-girlfriend Samantha (Vera Farmiga) one night, the judge takes a drive out to the convenience store.  The next day, Hank discovers some rather curious damage to the front of his father's car.  What he doesn't realize is that there's a dead body associated with it.  Now, he must put aside his contentious relationship with his father to do what he does best as a defense attorney.  There are a couple of problems standing in Hank's way, thorny prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) and the judge himself.

Beautifully filmed with gorgeous, yellowish cinematography, The Judge somehow misses the mark.  It's got everything on paper.  It's a courtroom drama stacked with top actors.  It's a movie with prime real estate on the fall release calendar.  It's Oscar fodder in the utmost sense.  The only problem is that it's not that great.  Boasting a nearly two and a half hour runtime and never diverging from the legal drama playbook, the film is one long reminder that there's always a dud in the awards season.  Unfortunately, the performances won't exactly dazzle moviegoers either.  All in all, The Judge doesn't live up to those expectations to which I referred previously.

For his part as defense attorney Hank Palmer, Robert Downey, Jr. brings all his typical charms and wits.  He's snarky.  He's amusing.  He's the Robert Downey, Jr. we all know and love.  All that being said, his performance lacks depth.  He can't dig down and pull out the deeper, darker emotions in the more piercing dramatic scenes.  He's definitely "on" as his normal charismatic self, but that's not enough.  There has to be something more than the witty attorney who frequently clashes with his father and occasionally sheds a tear. At the end of the day, there's just not enough substance to his performance.

Rumor has it that Jack Nicholson was offered the role of Judge Joe Palmer.  With this in mind, I can’t help but think about last year’s Nebraska.  While Bruce Dern gives a solid performance as lottery winner Woody Grant, one can only wonder what Nicholson would have done with the character.  Similarly, Robert Duvall delivers a solid, stalwart performance, but Nicholson would have been perfect for the role of Judge Joe Palmer.  Nicholson and Downey trading barbs on screen would have been cinematic gold.  I've got plenty of love for Duvall.  He's a screen legend who has made his mark on the world of cinema with an array of landmark films.  However, the 83 year-old actor cannot convincingly portray a character eleven years his junior anymore, nor does he bring quite the right personality to the character.  He’s too Robert Duvall.  The passion for acting still burns within him, but this simply isn't a role suited to him.

The supporting cast delivers decent performances.  The standout by far is Vera Farmiga as Samantha.  She's compassionate, alluring, and mysterious.  She's easily the most interesting character in the film.  As prosecutor Dwight Dickham, Billy Bob Thornton is sharp and icy, everything an antagonistic prosecutor should be.  Vincent D'Onofrio and Jeremy Strong deliver solid performances as the Palmer brothers.

The Judge just doesn't reach the cinematic peak that it could have.  It's clear where I stand.  It's decent, but not good enough.  This courtroom drama gets a 0.06% rating.  Have a couple of glasses of Albariño with this one.