Film: The Judge
Director: David Dobkin
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio
Leo Tolstoy was on to something when he said, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The three-sons-one-father family in The Judge, in Robert Downey Jr’s words, is a “Picasso painting,” just pepper it with a few F-words. And this is where the film gets its distinct character.
Downey Jr plays Hank Palmer, a successful city lawyer who likes to stay on the left side of right. Robert Duvall plays his father Joseph Palmer who has been an upstanding judge to their little community and is still ruling with an iron hand over his empire, well into his dotage.
The father and son cannot stand each other and Hank has not visited his family home for years. The death of his mother forces the prodigal son to face his past and his father. His plan to take the first flight out after the funeral goes awry when his father is accused of hit-and-run murder and he is forced to defend him.
As the legal drama unfolds, not only the two face truths about them but also learn to accept the rest of the family -- older brother Vincent D’Onofrio who lost out on a promising sports career due to Hank and Jeremy Strong as a somewhat addled younger brother who is the innocent in all of this. There are enough hints dropped about a tortured childhood to keep you interested.
Vera Farmiga as Hank’s high school love and Billy Bob Thornton’s turn as the prosecution attorney who has travelled all the way to this hick town to humiliate Hank, make up the rest of excellent supporting cast.
The strength of The Judge is it’s A-list cast, who all deliver sterling performances. As the film begins, you see Downey Jr as the brash motor-mouth Tony Stark all over again. But gradually his Marvel avatar starts to fade in the background as the actor leaves his comfort zone and inhabits his character.
Duvall, meanwhile, is excellent as the man who has lost his wife but not his strength to live by his principles and his fierce discipline. He tolerates his other two sons but is openly hostile to his third son.
The two Roberts give us the best moments of the film – whether they are belittling each other or finally facing their demons. A particular scene where Hank has to help his strict father in the bathroom is particularly moving.
The Judge’s problem is that there is too much happening in the film. A dysfunctional family finding each other, incest, legal drama, thriller, oddball jokes – director David Dobkin flirts with all the threads but could not make up its mind what he wants the film to be.
Scenes near the end of the film feel too long and some editing scissors would not have harmed this drama which rather stretches at almost two hours and 22 minutes.
If you keep your expectations low, you will not come away disappointed from this film. But those of us -- and I am one of them -- who were expecting nothing less than fireworks from this epic cast, the film comes as a bit of a downer.
Robert Downey Jr famously tweeted about The Judge that this is the kind of movie he grew up wanting to make and it only took 49 years. It appears that ‘that film’ is still in the future.