It’s easy to forget how amazing of an actor Robert Downey Jr. is. Not to sell short his most famous role of Tony Stark/Iron Man, but nowadays it’s hard to think of him as anyone else. From his role as Charlie Chaplin, to Sherlock Holmes, to “Zodiac” and plenty of others, Downey is exceptional. So when Downey breaks free of his Tony Stark role it feels refreshing. That’s only partly why I was excited for “The Judge.” Pairing up with acting heavyweight Robert Duvall, this was looking like a huge Oscar contender early. “The Judge” never reaches as high as it aims for and does have some structural problems and other flaws but through an incredible performance from Robert Duvall and several emotional moments, “The Judge” is a good movie but not the great one it could have been.
After spending years away from his hometown, big shot criminal defense lawyer Hank Palmer is returning after the passing of his mother. Shortly after the funeral his estranged father (and big judge of the town) is suspected of murder. Having to try to reconcile their differences and to come to terms with the past between them, Palmer represents his father on trial in an attempt to prove his innocence
Audiences expecting a compelling court room drama won’t necessarily find it here. “The Judge” (despite what’s being advertised) is not primarily a court room drama instead it is a story about a man and his family. The court room scenes is more of a way to explore the relationships between Hank Palmer (played by Robert Downey Jr.) and his father (played by Robert Duvall). The scenes involving the court rooms are used effectively and are well staged and directed. It doesn’t explore new territory that we haven’t seen before but never the less they are tense and engaging, while also adding new plot twists that do sometimes go against typical court room drama conventions (which is mostly referring to the resolution). If the court room is just a tool in the screenwriters tool box then family drama is the foundation. The court room scenes help add to the foundation of this house that the filmmakers were building up.
The family drama however is the main ploy of the film’s narrative, which is emotional engaging and has stand out scenes to boot. Yet as a whole this also hinders the film. These scenes get repetitive, taxing, and sometimes emotionally manipulative. There are several scenes illustrating a point about the relationship of the characters but will try to drive that point home about 3 or 4 more times when it didn’t need that many. Sure, many of it results in some incredible scenes but then it becomes a collection of great scenes with a lot of road bumps in between them rather than a cohesive whole movie. The story is certainly well intended, relatable and watchable but this didn’t need to be 142 minutes long when 120 would have been sublime.
There is also a whole subplot with Hank Palmer and his ex-girlfriend, Samantha Powell (played nicely by actress Vera Fermiga) that doesn’t add a whole lot to the plot. It’s an addition that should feel more important than it does and a few rewrites might have done it some good.
Clearly though this whole film is structured around and depended on the talents of two heavy weight actors. The two that were casted were Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. Robert Downey Jr. obviously can carry a film in a starring or a supporting role and does get a chance to flex his acting chops that seemed dormant behind his superhero persona. At times Downey’s performance starts to creep into the territory of great but through the first third of the film it seems as though he is trying to resist his instinct to play Tony Stark. It takes time for Downey to settle into his role but once he does his acting chops are incredible.
Our second main lead is the great veteran actor Robert Duvall. Duvall is the standout here that gives a world class performance . Had the best acting categories not been so crowded this year and if “The Judge” had been getting more praise I think we could maybe would seen some best acting discussion for Duvall. Duvall and Downey are perfectly paired together and do have wonderful chemistry on screen. This film cannot work as well as it does had it not been for the casting and towering performances of both Downey and Duvall.
“The Judge” was clearly intended to be an Oscar contender but this has got way too many flaws to one. Certainly it has some excellent, memorable scenes and great performances from Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall, yet the runtime is too long and the script is repetitive. This is far from a bad movie in fact it’s a good one but not the great one it could have been.