“My father is a lot of unpleasant things, but murderer is not one of them.”
The Judge may not be the highly effective powerhouse courtroom drama we were expecting when we first heard about the pairing of Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall, but it isn’t the terrible film some critics are describing it as either. Most of us had high expectations for The Judge but once the first reviews started coming in my expectations were lowered so I went into this with moderate expectations. It is a somewhat effective melodrama when it centers on the father and son family dynamics, but when it tries to include other subplots like the courtroom drama scenes and the relationship with a former lover, the film falls flat and feels overlong.
Director David Dobkin succeeds when he gets Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall in a room together. Those are the most effective scenes of the film and they standout because both actors are on the top of their game. Dobbin however fails when he tries to cram other dramatic elements into this film, and he does so way too often. At 144 minutes, The Judge could have been more effective if it were cut short and centered exclusively on the family dynamics rather than on the rest of the subplots that Dobbin is cramming into the film. The problem is that Dobbin is trying too hard to make a serious film since this is his first time directing a non-comedy.
Audiences who were expecting a Grisham style courtroom drama will be disappointed because that aspect of the story falls flat, but as a film centering on a dysfunctional father and son relationship it succeeds thanks to the two lead actors. When the two Roberts get together The Judge pulls at your heart strings effectively, but the rest of the scenes do feel clichéd and manipulative (especially the scenes involving those home movie projections). I also enjoyed this as a character study of the different family dynamics and I appreciated the films intentions about giving an honest portrayal of aging through Duvall’s character. There are some powerful scenes, but they are ruined sometimes by the cliches the film follows.
Aside from Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall’s powerful performances (they are both at their best here), there is also a very interesting supporting performances from Vincent D’Onofrio. His scenes with Downey are relevant as well and he holds his own. Billy Bob Thornton doesn’t really get much character development considering the court case is simply included as an excuse to keep this family together. Farming is a wonderful actress and she gives a strong performance as well, but her scenes really don’t add anything to the film and their subplot could have been left out.
The premise of the film isn’t anything we haven’t seen before either. The story centers on a hot shot lawyer from a big city who is returning to the small town he grew up and ran away from, for his mother’s funeral. He doesn’t want to stay long because his relationship with his father is a disaster and we get a glimpse of it early on. Those scenes are powerful but not entirely original. Downey plays the smart mouth witty son to perfection, while Duvall is the uptight and stern father who he can easily play in his sleep. The only moment where Duvall and Downey were on screen together that didn’t work for me was when they begin discussing their personal issues while his father stands on trial. That was just one example of a forced moment where melodrama seemed more important than authenticity. There are several moments like this that hurt this film, but the few authentic moments are powerful enough to recommend this it. The Judge isn’t a bad film, it’s just one that had the potential to be so much more.