Review: The Judge

Robert Downey Jr. stars as a slick big city lawyer who comes home to Carlinville, Indiana for his mother’s funeral. He reunites with his somewhat estranged brothers Vincent D’Onofrio (a former baseball hopeful until an incident involving he and Downey saw an end to that) and the slightly intellectually disabled Jeremy Strong, as well as his cranky, emotionally distant father Robert Duvall, a local judge of great experience but precious time for Downey. If mother dying isn’t bad enough, things get even worse when Duvall turns murder suspect, accused of deliberately running over a long-time foe with his car. The old man swears he remembers nothing of the incident, and forbids Downey from representing him (The old man is honest, Downey is sneaky, thus he doesn’t want that kind of help). These two seriously don’t get on, and no they don’t want to talk about it, OK? Downey sticks around anyway, as a hopelessly hapless local furniture store owner and attorney (a priceless Dax Shepard) takes up Duvall’s cause. Meanwhile, Downey has a little trip down memory lane with a former flame (Vera Farmiga), whose young daughter (Leighton Meester) Downey met at the local bar. Billy Bob Thornton plays the ruthless prosecutor with a bit of a grudge against Downey, whilst David Krumholtz has an early cameo as one of Downey’s colleagues back in Chicago.


Seeming for all money like a John Grisham adaptation (“The Client”, “The Rainmaker”), this 2014 legal drama from director David Dobkin (previously the director of enjoyable comedies like “Wedding Crashers” and “The Change-Up”), is actually the work of screenwriters Nick Schenk (“Gran Torino”, the remake of “RoboCop”) and debutant Bill Dubuque, not based on a novel. It’s pretty solid stuff, though it actually works better on the family drama front than the legal front, where Billy Bob Thornton seems awfully wasted as the ruthless prosecutor, though dude is truly ice fucking cold when called upon. Were most of his scenes left on the cutting room floor? Much better company is an hilariously nervous Dax Shepard as a comically inexperienced defence attorney. If he were in any more of the film, it might tip things into overkill, but as is, he’s an unexpected hoot.


At its heart, this really is a family drama with characters who frankly don’t make it easy for us to like them, let alone for them to like each other, which saves the film from being too schmaltzy on that front. Robert Downey Jr. once again shows off his unique talent for playing characters who are kind of glib jerks…that you can’t quite hate. Here he plays a slickster who only represents the guilty, because they’re the only ones rich enough to afford him. He’s also once again playing the smartest guy in the room, as he proves with a couple of barroom bullies, whose prior convictions he manages to intuit. Clever. I’m not overly keen on this snarky, glib persona invading the superhero realm, where it feels condescending, so it’s good to see Downey acting in the real world again for a change. If Downey is an arrogant, spiteful, sarcastic prick, then Robert Duvall as his father is a stubborn, emotionally closed-off old bastard. It’s a really fascinating character dynamic, and an Oscar-nominated Duvall more than holds up his end of things. When he’s on as an actor, he’s really on, and here he brings the kind of gravitas that has to be lived, not taught. The first meeting between father and son here…wow. This is not a tight family to say the least. Sure, none of this family drama stuff is particularly new, but it is played by the actors (including a solid Vincent D’Onofrio) in a bitter, brooding, and harshly raw manner with great sincerity and conviction.


If there’s a flaw here, it’s the unnecessary romantic subplot involving a tattooed and unconvincing Vera Farmiga, though Leighton Meester once again proves the only good thing to have spawned from “Gossip Girl” with an amusing performance. Shepard is an absolute riot as a lawyer…and furniture store owner. Meanwhile, I’m guessing David Krumholtz has spent the last few years since “Numb3rs” got canned, working in a bakery. Wow, dude has really packed it on and gotten all doughy.


In my notes, I remarked that if this were indeed a Grisham adaptation, it may not be the best, but it’s the only one that has left me close to tears by the end. Even though it proves not to be a Grisham adaptation, I think the sentiment still holds true. It’s an OK courtroom drama, with a slightly underwhelming conclusion, but as a bitter family drama, it’s actually pretty moving.


Rating: B-


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