THE JUDGE gives us an A+ cast in a story we’ve heard before.
Scenery chewers Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall battle it out as an estranged father and son reunited by tragedy. But the real strength of the film is the excellent supporting cast. We know what to expect from Downey Jr. and Duvall, and they deliver. The supporting actors, however, temper the bombastic exchanges between the two and give the story its humanity.
Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.), a powerful Chicago defense attorney, receives a call in the middle of a trial that his mother has unexpectedly died. He will have to return to the small Indiana town he grew up in and has persistently tried to forget. Despite his success, his personal life is unravelling. He’s separated from his wife Lisa (Sarah Lancaster), and trying to explain the whole thing to his precocious daughter Lauren (Emma Treimbly).
Hank’s return to Carlinville for the funeral will put him in contact with people he hasn’t seen in twenty years. The picturesque – and fictional – Carlinville doesn’t seem at all unpleasant, but it holds few good memories for Hank. Several small towns in Massachusetts served as filming locations for Carlinville, with some exteriors shot in Chicago as well. Robert Duvall channels his best stubborn old codger persona as Joseph Palmer, the local judge for 42 years. The excellent Vincent D’Onofrio gives a quiet, but powerful, performance as Glen, Hank’s older brother. After his promising baseball career was sidelined by a serious injury during his senior year in high school, he has remained in Carlinville where he owns a tire business. Judge Palmer doesn’t hide his pride in Glen’s glory days in high school, nor does he hide his blame for Hank since he was driving when they had the accident.
Jeremy Strong plays Hank’s younger brother, Dale, who is mentally disabled but has a savant skill with 8mm camera work. It’s through his spliced films from the past that we get a glimpse of the mother who was the emotional compass of the family. The projections also give Hank and Joseph a fresh look at their history. It’s an interesting and poignant plot device.
Vera Farmiga gives a radiant and sassy performance as Hank’s high school girlfriend, Samantha Powell. She loves Carlinville and has become a successful business owner of a restaurant and a bar. She’s also a single mom to Carla (Leighton Meester), a law student at Georgetown when she’s not bartending at her mom’s bar.
The turn of events that begins the dominant story line happens when Judge Palmer is accused of running down and killing a man he convicted and sent to prison years earlier. Hank feels an obligation to defend his father, but the Judge fights him at every turn. At first, Judge Palmer hires an incompetent local attorney, C. P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard), to defend him, but when it becomes apparent that the state D.A. assigned to the case, Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), is skilled and ruthless enough to win, Hank sits in as co-attorney, much to Kennedy’s relief. Hank is not used to losing, so the tension between him and his father grows to the boiling point as the Judge sabotages Hank’s attempts to save him at every turn.
The rest of the story plays out as one of discovery, or perhaps re-discovery would be a better description, and redemption – well, partial redemption, anyway. Even a few surprises can’t keep this stubborn father vs. equally-stubborn son interaction from seeming clichéd . Dad is unable to express his true feelings, and son covers his considerable emotional pain with humor. Robert Downey Jr. is particularly skilled at this type of portrayal, and he doesn’t disappoint. He provides much needed humor to an intensely emotional story. It’s a bit of a tear-jerker, and the unfolding of the story feels emotionally manipulative.
The performances in THE JUDGE are Oscar-worthy, but the film itself goes on too long (141 minutes) and literally wears out the audience. It comes off as heavy-handed denying the audience the clearly redemptive tone it desires. - JoAnne Hyde