By Nick Anstett
Elm Staff Writer
Watching “The Judge” brings to mind channel surfing through basic cable television on a lazy afternoon, and coming to rest on the Lifetime Movie Network. It’s the sort of sentimental and good natured diversion that is enough to distract you for a few hours while lying sick, doing homework, or household chores. Except, “The Judge” is a theatrically released film that somehow managed to score Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall.
Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is Indiana’s best defense attorney. With a near spotless case record and swagger in his step, Hank has claimed the local legal circuit defending those morally corrupt few that can afford him. However, not all is well in Hank’s life. His wife (Sarah Lancaster) is filing for a divorce and custody battles over their daughter (Emma Tremblay) are in full swing.
His personal and professional life are put on hold however, when Hank receives a call from home. His mother has died and he must return for the funeral. Doing so forces Hank to return to a life that he abandoned decades ago, forcing him into contact with siblings, neighbors, and former girlfriends. It seems to be a reunion steeped in bittersweet nostalgia, but Hank’s recovering alcoholic father (Robert Duvall), local judge Joseph Palmer, makes it clear that past demons have not been forgotten. However, when Joseph finds himself in a potentially disastrous legal scandal, Hank and him are forced to put aside their demons.
It’s hard not to be surprised that a movie that begins with Downey Jr. urinating on a man would be lacking in subtlety and nuance. Everything about “The Judge” is presented with sweeping musical score and carefully choreographed emotional beats. Nearly the entire film feels as if it telegraphs its emotion to its audience. The script, by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, shows a profound lack of confidence in itself as well as the viewer. It’s clear adversity to risk taking and predictable narrative make for a movie viewing experience that drags through two and a half hours.
There’s also more than a bit about “The Judge” that spurs head scratching and comes across as tasteless. Nearly every character in Hank’s life is paired with some sort of personal melodrama that they must overcome. Rather than acting as a fleshing out of the film’s admittedly extensive ensemble, the results feel as though the writers and producers descended down a checklist and marked off different heartstring tugging tropes needed to be included within the narrative. These choices often step beyond the unremarkable and into the realms of poor taste. Hank has a younger brother (Jeremy Strong) that suffers from some sort of social or mental disability, but his presence in the film is mostly used for unsuccessful comic relief. There’s also a cringe-worthy running gag involving a case of accidental incest that threatens to undermine every ounce of sentimentality “The Judge” wants to desperately.
Why actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall would be attracted to this film is for the most part a mystery. In the film’s favor though, they are its saving grace. Despite the banality and on the nose schmatlz of it all, both actors do carry strong screen presence and their interactions with one another are engrossing. When the two clash, they throw tired dialogue and clichés back and forth like bullets, but somehow it’s gripping all the same.