The Judge is an uneven, artificial, cloying exercise – the characters developed on nothing but clichés, the plot constructed as a series of contrivances and conveniences that are highly unrealistic yet much beloved by screenwriters. Its length of 148 minutes allows for not one but three genres, all innately dramatic yet curiously peppered with awkward moments of levity: (1) The high-strung courtroom mystery, in which guilt or innocence hinges on the facts of a murky event; (2) the small-town romance, which has been dormant for decades and is threatened by personal baggage after it’s awakened; (3) the family melodrama, in which two antagonistic relatives are forced by the unwritten laws of movies like this to share the same space, and in turn take those first painful, begrudging steps towards love and respect.
We begin with Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.), a slick, ruthless, silver-tongued, deeply intense Chicago defense attorney with a track record for representing known criminals. Of course we’re shown right at the start that he’s in the process of getting a divorce; part of the purpose of this film is to incrementally reveal why his personal life is in shambles while his professional life is thriving. But I’m getting ahead of myself. He reluctantly returns to his small Indiana home town to attend his mother’s funeral, which means he has no choice but to reunite with the rest of his family. Firstly, there are his brothers. One, named Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), spends most of his screen time suppressing some kind of emotional eruption. The other, named Dale (Jeremy Strong), is an unneeded mentally-challenged caricature with a penchant for shooting and editing home movies.
And then there’s Hank’s father, Joe (Robert Duvall), who has been a tough but well-respected local judge for the past forty-plus years. Father and son don’t get along; during their early scenes together, they alternate between quiet yet brief and incredibly strained conversational moments to nasty, unprovoked personal attacks. These men are so hostile and unpleasant towards each other that it’s impossible to believe the forty-year-old family footage we inevitably see when Dale fires up his antique projector, which shows a typical white, suburban, nuclear unit engaged in unnaturally happy bouts of playtime and fishing. There will come a point when these saccharine images are dramatically offset by footage of a pivotal car accident. One must wonder who in the family shot this footage and why he or she believed anyone would want a trauma preserved for posterity.
After the funeral, Hank has every intention of returning to Chicago and resuming his estrangement from his father. But in a twist of fate that can only exist in the movies, Joe is arrested, charged with the vehicular murder of a deplorable man who was once on trial in his courtroom. The long and short of it is that, despite his long-standing hatred, Hank steps in as his father’s attorney and defends him against an equally ruthless prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton), who’s determined to put Joe behind bars. It is, of course, during the process of building a case that father and son work towards repairing their relationship, even though both are infuriatingly bullheaded. Something else is keeping them together, and while the ads for the film haven’t given away this particular aspect of the plot, it’s nevertheless such a common narrative device that you shouldn’t have any trouble figuring out what it is.
As the father/son drama unfolds, so too does a subplot involving Hank and a waitress/diner owner named Samantha (Vera Farmiga), who is, naturally, the girl he left behind after a romantic high school fling. For someone who embraces her small town roots and claims that she never wants to leave home, she always looks curiously dolled up, as if she makes regular appointments to the kinds of beauty salons you’d only find in Beverly Hills. The reasoning behind the inclusion of this character is obvious: To not only fall in love with Hank all over again, but also to make him see that he is at heart a small town boy and doesn’t belong in Chicago. What isn’t so obvious, and you’ll have to forgive me for being vague, is the reasoning behind an unnecessary, narratively unrelated subplot involving both Hank and Samantha.
Downey is a wonderful actor, although I can’t begin to explain why his performance in The Judge necessitated a delivery style similar to someone on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I’m also hard pressed to account for the film’s inappropriate displays of humor, including a co-counselor (Dax Shepard) so wholesome, idealistic, and inexperienced that he repeatedly vomits on the lawn in front of the courthouse. And really, was there anything to be gained by making the story so emotionally manipulative? There are two scenes in particular that stand out. In one, Hank’s young daughter (Emma Tremblay) has the most manufactured of talks with her father about divorce. In the other, Hank and Joe have their worst fight as a tornado approaches, and of course they wouldn’t be in the storm cellar but rather pacing the first floor of the house as gale-force winds howl around them.