It has been 42 years since Robert Duvall played the impossibly tough Lt. Col. “Bull” Meechum in The Great Santini. In that movie, Duvall set a high standard for big-screen fathers who couldn’t be pleased.
Duvall, who’s now 73, plays another difficult father in The Judge, an shamelessly manipulative movie that’s unsure whether it wants to be a taut courtroom drama or an emotional story about a strained relationship between a father and his son (Robert Downey Jr.).
R for language including some sexual references
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
An overloaded script doesn’t help either Downey or Duvall overcome the ham-handed and predictable quality of the writing by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque.
David Dobkin, who has directed such regrettable comedies as The Change-Up and Fred Claus, scatters effective dramatic moments throughout, but the filmmakers bite off more than any movie should chew, and the residue dribbles down their chins, often pooling into puddles of cliche.
After so many effects-laden movies — from Iron Man to The Avengers to Sherlock Holmes — you’d think that Downey would be eager for a role that allows him to keep his feet planted on realistic ground. But in playing a slick, ethically dubious big-city attorney, Downey treads familiar ground as a glib, fast-talking character — one Hank Palmer — who returns to his Indiana hometown to attend his mother’s funeral. There, he reunites with his two brothers — baseball wash-out Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and mentally challenged Dale (Jeremy Strong).
The brothers are a side trip, though: Hank’s relationship with his father — a man everyone calls The Judge — drives the movie. Watching a grown man try to come to grips with a hard-ass father seems like drama enough for any movie, but The Judge contrives to have Duvall’s character charged with murder in what appears to have been a hit-and-run accident.
There’s a corpse and incriminating blood on the bumper of the judge’s car, but Duvall’s Joseph Palmer doesn’t remember hitting anyone. Is he lying? Is he suffering from dementia?
Not surprisingly, Hank eventually takes over his father’s defense. In the process, he rediscovers a sense of humanity that he lost in a career that has focused on defending high paying clients, most of them guilty as charged.
To add yet another unnecessary level of complexity to the movie’s two hours and 20 minutes, Hank is estranged from his trophy wife, but trying to maintain a relationship with his button-cute daughter (Emma Tremblay). About midway through, she visits Hank.
Hank also tests the waters of romance with an old flame (Vera Farmiga), who now owns a local bar and grill.
When the courtroom elements kick into high gear, a stoney-faced Billy Bob Thornton shows up as prosecuting attorney Dwight Dickham.
The idea of a movie starring actors as good as Downey and Duvall must have seemed irresistible, but The Judge trips over too many of the bases it tries to touch. Moreover, the trial fails to score high in the credibility department.
The cast is too good totally to be defeated by material that seems to plead for our tears, but The Judge can’t overrule the deep mediocrity of its many conceits.