(SPOILERS) Robert Downey Jr.’s non-Iron Man, non-Sherlock Holmes self-produced vanity project took a tumble at about this time last year. It probably left a few studio suits scratching their heads. This was the star in his cocky element (unlike Due Date), playing off one of cinema’s great actors (Robert Duvall), playing in a reliable genre staple (the courtroom drama). It isn’t so mystifying on actually watching the thing. The Judge is bloated, unfocused and manages to coddle the viewer with clichés while simultaneously inserting material if thinks might be a little edgy (but really isn’t).
Actually, scratch that. I was genuinely surprised by the scene in which Downey’s Hank Palmer must avoid slipping over in his ailing father Joseph’s (Duvall) shit, and then proceeds to help him clean himself up. This in a picture that is otherwise so shamelessly glossy and textbook in the narrative points it hits.
Warner Bros must be thanking their lucky stars that David Dobkin’s Arthur and Lancelot never went into production. Dobkin’s fine as an anonymous comedy guy (well… he is responsible for Fred Claus) but only Downey Jr. knows why he was thought to have the chops for a serious drama. His approach seems to be marbling the picture in Janusz Kaminski’s lush visuals (that light flooding the courtroom though; sheesh!) and allowing Thomas Newman to smother it with an emotionally tugging but banal score. Mostly the picture just meanders, never able to gather steam on a course that is constantly checking itself; is this a family saga, a romance, a murder mystery? There’s even a smattering of ill-advised adult humour as Hank frets over whether the young woman he copped off with when he got to town is in fact his daughter (it’s okay, she’s only his niece! But he’s still not telling his ex).
I think I had in mind Downey Jr. attempting to do a proper courtroom drama when I heard about the picture, à la The Verdict, but every element of Hank’s journey is tired and familiar. He’s that heartless rich lawyer without a shred of moral fibre (“And how does it feel, Hank, knowing every person you represent is guilty?”: “It’s fine. Innocent people can’t afford me”), a guy who pisses on an opposing prosecuting attorney’s shoes in the first scene, who is splitting up with his pert wife and is estranged from his curmudgeonly father. Don’t worry, though. He adores his daughter, so we know it will all work out fine in the end.
Just because material is familiar, doesn’t mean it can’t be fruitful; the rich city guy returning to the small town of his birth and rediscovering himself is evergreen in potential. It’s mostly squandered here, though. The obligatory old flame, as personified by the wonderful but underused Vera Farmiga, adds little to the proceedings other than expanding the running time unnecessarily to the two-and-a-quarter hour mark (this is where the Downey vanity vehicle bit comes in; it has to cater for any emotion he wishes to explore herein, including showing his abs).
There’s the crafty prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton, running on autopilot, but who can blame him), the inexperienced defender (Dax Shepard, decent but doing his well-meaning doofus shtick) and the brothers; could’ve-been-a-ballplayer-if-not-for-Hank’s-dark-past (Vincent D’Onofrio, doing the nice guy) and learning disabled filmmaker Hank stands rock solid by (Jeremy Strong). The latter’s facility leads to overcooked nostalgia trip home movies.
The trial revolves around whether Joseph, on the night after burying his wife, ran down and killed a man he regretted letting off lightly 20 years earlier (who subsequently got out of prison and killed his girlfriend). None of the twists are sufficiently dramatic (it’s patently obvious Joseph hasn’t started on the booze again, and is ill when he forgets someone’s name, rather undermining Hank’s shit-hot credentials), and Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque’s screenplay even resorts to a big emotional bonding moment mid-trial as Joseph reveals just how much he loved his wayward son despite it all.
The Judge lacks balls. To paraphrase a question Hank asks his brothers, what line was Dobkin in when they were distributing testicles? He’s content to imbue the movie with a superficial veneer, only occasionally punctured by its stars, because that’s the only kind of movie he seems comfortable making. This is a picture with so little real inspiration, when it comes across a good line it has to put quotation marks around it (“Everybody wants Atticus Finch until there’s a dead hooker in the bathtub”). Downey Jr. is very much not stretching himself here, but he’s reliable, and he’s more than up to playing a scene opposite Duvall, who is the (only) real reason to see this.