Teaming up together for the first time, Robert Duvall (Oscar winner for “Tender Mercies”) and Robert Downey Jr. (two-time Oscar nominee for “Chaplin” and “Tropic Thunder”) play father-and-son at-odds in this poignant courtroom psychodrama. Read on…
Hank Palmer (Downey) is a glibly unscrupulous Chicago defense attorney whose marriage is crumbling when he’s summoned back to his idyllic Midwestern hometown of Carlinville, Indiana, for his mother’s funeral. He’s greeted warmly by his older brother, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), and mentally-challenged younger brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong), but gets an icy, dismissive reception by his patriarchal father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall), who has always disapproved of Hank’s flash-and-dash style. Immediately after the burial as Hank is ready to depart, his father is arrested and charged with the hit-and-run murder of Mark Blackwell (Mark Kiely), a scummy criminal whom the Judge had sentenced years earlier. Although Hank offers to defend him, the stubborn old man turns to a local yokel, C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard), an antiques dealer/lawyer whose incompetence is obvious when he faces determined prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton). Meanwhile at the Flying Deer Diner, Hank flirts with a sassy young bartender, Carla (Leighton Meester), only to discover to his chagrin that his high-school sweetheart, Samantha (Vera Farmiga), is her mother.
Scripted by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque from a story by director David Dobkin and Schenk, it’s filled with intensely complicated family dynamics which Dobkin – best known for comedies like “Wedding Crashers,” “Shanghai Knights” and “Fred Claus” – unfortunately dilutes with expository dialogue and too many secretive subplots. Which is surprising since it was produced by Robert Downey Jr.’s production company, Team Downey, which he formed with his wife Susan, who previously served as an executive vice-president at Joel Silver’s company. In addition, at 141 minutes, it’s far too long.
FYI: picturesque Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, stands in for Carlinville, Indiana, as the prototypical Norman Rockwell-type town with its annual Blueberry Festival.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Judge” is a sentimental 6, following a prodigal son from sin to redemption.