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The Judge (2014)

| October 14, 2014 | 0 Comments

If you have any interest at all in the new legal thriller The Judge, then it is safe to say that you’re probably drawn in by the casting. Here in the same film are Robert Downey, Jr. – one of the best actors of his generation, and Robert Duvall – the great lion of the American cinema. That’s a powerhouse combination and it is a joy to report that neither disappoints, even when the movie itself falls by the wayside.

The Judge resembles those John Grisham thrillers that were popular in the 90s before the public came to the realization that he was basically telling the same story over and over. This is not a Grisham thriller, it’s actually better because it has more investment in the characters. Yes, it’s about a big criminal trial but that’s only a backdrop. It’s just as effective as a human drama.

At the film’s center is Robert Downey, Jr. as Hank Palmer, a successful self-centered Chicago defense attorney who is so smug that his personal motto is “Innocent people can’t afford me.” On the cusp of a major case, Hank is called home to Carlinville, Indiana with the news that his mother has suddenly passed away.

It’s not hard to guess that in returning to his hometown he is not met with warm hugs and tea. Actually he’s met with disdain and personal grudges, mostly from his extended family, a colorful bunch that is headed by Judge Joseph Warren (Duvall) a 42-year veteran trial judge whose personal style in court is based on common horse sense. Around town he’s a local legend. As with everyone else, Hank and the old man have a prickly relationship and there’s an emotional distance between them that you could drive an oil tanker through. The old man isn’t just some crusty old goat, he’s a reasonable man who is disappointed by some of the choices that Hank has made, coupled with the fact that he has just lost his wife of 50 years.

Hank can’t wait to get back to Chicago, but (Spoiler Alert!) he wakes up one morning and finds some damage done to his father’s car. It seems that the judge ran over a man that he previously put in jail. Was it a grudge? Was it an accident? Was the Judge even there? The facts of the case are really just filler. The best parts of the movie deal with the emotional distance between Hank and the people he left behind in Carlinville. There is no love lost, but when the old man is in trouble, he’s forced to deal with dark chapters in his life that he thought were closed forever.

The great joy of The Judge is Robert Downey, Jr. whose performance reminds you of the reasons why he became a movie star in the first place. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen him in a film outside of Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes (and based on his dance card for the next few years, it may be a while before we see it again). Here he’s allowed to play a full-blooded character. There’s a lot of Tony Stark in Hank Palmer, especially in the film’s opening, but Downey surprises us by displaying a great deal of upfront vulnerability. Hank is a showman in court, but he’s also a human being with a heart; a man who has made mistakes that fill him with bitterness and deep regret.  Downey has proven that he can act with the power of his mouth, here he shows that he can do the same with the power of his heart.

The performances make up for lags in the script. This is a deeply human drama, but often the drama seems to drag. Some scenes go on too long. There are too many characters characters and subplots, especially a needless, tacked-on romance between Hank and his old high school sweetheart (Vera Farmiga) that could have been excised from this film without affecting the main story at all.

The film comes from David Dobkin, who made The Wedding Crashers a decade ago and has spent his time making dopey comedies like The Change Up, Mr. Woodcock and Fred Claus. Here he’s trying his hand at something more serious, and while he doesn’t completely succeed in the story department, you must admire the performance he’s able to get from Downey and Duvall. He lets the characters breath and doesn’t tighten them down by the demands of the plot. It’s a good effort, it’s a good movie. It’s not great, but it’s worth seeing.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2014) View IMDB Filed in: Drama, Recent