Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, Dax Shepard
At one point, a tornado arrives to metaphorically mirror the emotional storm of the Packer home. Right then, one thing becomes abundantly clear; in any lesser hands, The Judge would be wobbly melodrama – over-ripe, over-written, and over-bloated.
However, this flick is likely to be very popular. Primarily, we are rewarded with Downey and Duvall verbally sparring with exceptionally cruel, witty one-liners. Legendary cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List) always finds the beautiful shot, and Thomas Newman (American Beauty, Finding Nemo) provides a charming score.
Sure, Downey is playing another verbally skilled asshole here. (By now, you’d think he’d get bored, though he’s brilliant at it.) He’s given a wonderful adversary in his own dad, Duvall, the upstanding, stiff judge of the title. They’ve had some bad blood between them – funny, vicious, entertaining bad blood.
Downey is a slick, amoral Chicago lawyer who hasn’t been back to his small Indiana hometown in years. Finally, he returns to attend his mom’s funeral. While there, he finds that daddy Duvall may have been involved in a murder. Of course, Downey steps in to represent the principled but hated judge during the trial.
Are the amoral lawyer and the stern judge going to have it out? Oh, several times.
One of the problems with the script is that it’s too full. Everyone gets a good, long chance to chew some scenery. The movie has a divorce, a precocious child, a messy embezzlement trial, and an earlier car accident that ends brother D’Onofrio’s baseball career. It’s almost wince-worthy how another brother (Strong), who is handicapped, is used for pathos. There’s also a subplot romance with Farmiga that, really, does nothing for the main plot. All of this runs two hours and twenty minutes, making this original script feel like it was based on a novel that no one wanted to edit.
Gothic family drama – a’la Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams or, more recently, August: Osage County – isn’t director David Dobkin’s forte. Up till now, he’s done goofy, brief comedies like The Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus, Mr. Woodcock, and Shanghai Knights. The Judge is based on Dobkins’ own ideas, so at least he knows enough to play to his strengths, making many moments comedic.
Sure, some of these bits are patently absurd. Prosecuting attorney Thornton has a disconcerting metal camper cup he loudly unfolds at his table. Hayseed lawyer Shepard always vomits just before he steps into the courthouse.
Then there’s stiff, crusty Duvall, a man perfectly cast as the proud, strict judge. His fights with the infinitely watchable Downey – though a little hackneyed – are gratingly joyous. Their tender scenes, what few there are, show that Dobkins may have a chance in serious drama yet.
Most of us watch families like the Packers to feel better about our own broods, to see how dysfunctional a family can get. It’s better here, because Dobkins knows we also want to be entertained. The verdict is that Duvall and Downey – along with some witty lines – make The Judge worth seeing.