Directed by: David Dobkin
Premise: A high powered defense attorney (Robert Downey Jr.) returns to his hometown when his ailing father (Robert Duvall), a local judge, is indicted on a murder charge.
What Works: The Judge benefits from two solid performers in its central roles. Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall are actors who command the frame and they give very good performances as an estranged father and son. The film begins with Downey’s character returning to his hometown for his mother’s funeral. He’s been away for years, having never returned since completing law school and becoming a powerful but unscrupulous defense attorney. Downey’s character finds his father as feisty as ever and shortly after the funeral the old man is arrested on suspicion of running down an ex-convict. It eventually falls to the son to defend his father in court although the two men disagree where matters of strategy and integrity are concerned. The film is at its best when Downey and Duvall are at each other’s throats and their heavy dramatic scenes play well. The movie also has an interesting take on masculinity. Downey’s character has two brothers, one a tire salesman and the other a mentally handicapped adult played by Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong, respectively. After the death of their mother, the house is only populated by men and the film features the humor and rapport that is unique among familial males. It’s crass but there is an underlying tenderness as well.
What Doesn’t: The Judge suffers from a series of problems with its credibility. Although all of the men have a shared rapport, Robert Downey Jr., Vincent D’Onofrio, and Jeremy Strong don’t look convincingly like brothers. The backstory of The Judge posits that Robert Downey Jr.’s character was in trouble with the law as a young man but has since become a powerful attorney and earned a law degree from a prestigious university but it’s very unlikely that a law school would admit a student with a criminal record. These inconsistencies and logical lapses are not major problems but they nag at the viewer because this film does not occupy the audience’s attention. The Judge runs nearly two and a half hours and it feels that length. The movie is set up to be a combination of a father and son bonding narrative and a murder mystery but neither of those elements are done compellingly. The bickering between Downey and Duvall’s characters is fun and gives the actors a chance to chew the scenery but the story isn’t working toward a reconciliation. Once the characters finally reach a forced understanding the movie continues with a protracted coda sequence that doesn’t serve any purpose except to make the movie longer. Far worse is the courtroom drama. The investigation has no tension and the possible murder charge is treated as an afterthought. The possible murder conviction of a judge has serious implications, but the filmmakers don’t explore any of those issues and instead they pack the movie with a lot of unnecessary subplots. Between the father-son conflict and the court case, this movie already has plenty of drama but the filmmakers keep piling it on. The family suffers the loss of their mother, the father is revealed to have cancer, and there is additional family drama that keeps pulling the story in new directions. Upon returning to town, Robert Downey Jr.’s character reunites with a former girlfriend played by Vera Farmiga and her daughter played by Leighton Meester. This subplot is unnecessary and it serves no purpose in the story. Ultimately, The Judge has a lot of narrative fragments but the story is so packed that it doesn’t do any of these elements very well.
Bottom Line: The Judge has some very good performances but the script has too much plot getting in the way of the story. The moviemakers keep diluting the central premise with a lot of extra nonsense that just inflates the length without creating substance.
Episode: #516 (November 2, 2014)