Hank Palmer (Downey Jnr) is a high-priced Chicago lawyer prepared to use any legal trick to win a case. His clients are wealthy and most likely ethically dodgy, because as Hank explains, “Innocent people can’t afford me”. He returns to Carlinville, his hometown in Indiana to attend his mother’s funeral. He finds dealing with his grief complicated by having to see his father for the first time in years. His father is Judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall) a pillar of the community and the man who presided over all the court cases in Carlinville for over forty years. The Judge is a proud man who doesn’t respect Hank’s style of lawyering. Just as Hank is ready to leave for Chicago, his father is accused of murdering a convicted killer who is out on parole. Hank has to defend the Judge despite his feelings and without recourse to legal technicalities.
The international trailer for THE JUDGE sells the film as a redemptive tale about lawyer played by Robert Downey junior who has to save his father from prison and therefore save his own soul; all while throwing down snarky one-liners about his crusty dad and life in a small town. This is precisely what this movie is about.
This point is worth making because a number of reviewers have reacted rather sniffily to this film for…reasons beyond my understanding. For not being deeper, perhaps. For not being the Oscar-bait they’d hoped, maybe. Reviewers, critics whatever you call us, certainly don’t have to agree en masse. In fact, when we are in lock step over any film, then I begin to wonder if some kind of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS scenario has been initiated. Which is my way of saying, there are those who knock this movie for not being better, whereas I think it does exactly what it promises and does it well.
This is obviously a Robert Downey Junior vehicle. Downey is not a versatile actor, in the sense that he doesn’t surprise audiences with a different fully realised character in every new movie. There is a Downeyness that he brings to every role, whether it’s Tony Stark, Sherlock Holmes or this. He is brilliant at playing lively characters who take in everything and engage with the situation at hand. Even before he developed his craft, he always had charisma and energy to burn and this keeps us watching. Many a director has relied on these qualities.
In THE JUDGE many of his scenes are with the excellent Robert Duvall. There is a whodunnit plotline here that intertwines with a classic American courtroom story. The audience doesn’t know who killed the man the judged is accused of murdering. Hank mounts the best defence possible against a lawyer (Billy Bob Thornton) who has the same level of trickiness as he does. While all of this is going on, Hank wonders if he should reconnect with his high school sweetheart (Vera Farmiga).
So there’s a lot going on here and none of it is original. There are slight tweaks to the formula all through the movie and that is sufficient to keep things interesting. Director David Dobkin does a solid job keeping the metaphorical plates spinning. Dobkin cut his teeth on comedy films like THE CHANGE UP, SHANGHAI KNIGHTS and THE WEDDING CRASHERS. He understands the rhythms of comedy and the laughs occur here without a hitch. This film is clearly an attempt to change gears by making a crowd-pleasing, middle-brow drama and he has succeeded in this. The result is an entertaining film for those who want to see Downey strutting his stuff minus the Tony Stark armour and the ever-helpful Jarvis.
THE JUDGE is in wide release in Australian cinemas now. I rated it a 7/10