If The Judge does poorly at the box office, it won’t be because audiences only want to see superhero movies. It will be because the drama of The Judge didn’t land, word spread and audiences could tell anyway. The Judge is not a boring movie, so it’s perfectly reasonable time-filling entertainment, but you can feel it aspiring to more and not getting there.
Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a smug big city lawyer, but at least he’s aware of his own cliches defending guilty clients under the vague ideals of the legal system. When he returns home for his mother’s funeral, he ends up defending his father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), in a hit and run case.
There is an engaging drama in an expert having to watch his family screw up. Judge Palmer wants a local attorney (Dax Shepard) to represent him, and his small town “aw shucks” idealism gets a harsh education in the realities of law. It’s dumbed down just enough to make sure everyone can follow, but Hank drops plenty of legalese to show he knows what he’s doing. The prosecutor, Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) has a hammy affectation with his collapsable cup, but it’s a fun hammy affectation. Unfortunately, we only see it twice. The cup should have been more prominent.
The Judge could coast on big city vs. small town justice, but its portrayal of family dysfunction is even more blatant. Everyone has to speak their dysfunction out loud, and it’s one of those movies where supporting characters keep explaining Hank to himself. The theme is that Hank is supposed to be an unpleasant person, yet because he’s Downey, he’s awesome. I’m sure going up against Hank in court is brutal, but for us watching, he’s smart, cool and always has the answer in any situation. The film opens with him peeing on another lawyer. That’s gross, but a kind of brazen defiance we kind of admire.
They had an edgy drama going for a while with a potentially irredeemable guy proving himself the lesser of two evils compared to his father. It really goes there with some of Judge Palmer’s diminishing physical capabilities. But The Judge goes sappy, and ultimately opts for sappy instead of edgy. I guess Downey’s already done edgy: Less than Zero, Natural Born Killers, Chaplin. Charlie Chaplin was dark.
Judge Palmer’s final testimony includes a “dun dun dunnnnnn” moment with a collective audible gasp in the court. Don’t worry, it’s something you could have easily predicted at least 30 minutes prior. Even before that moment, the film’s entire score is telling you that things are important. Take out that score and we might actually buy the drama on its own.
For the drama to pay off, a number of questionable things have to have happened. A key source of conflict between Hank and Joseph is that Joseph presided over a juvenile case and sentenced his son. Would a judge preside over his own son’s case? Maybe in a small town, but that seems like a reach for the sake of some inner conflict. We see home movies which are cloying, and raise a major question of why was younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong) filming that scene? He uses the camera as a social crutch, but there’s a scene where someone would have said, “Kid, put that sh** away.”
Again, these are good actors giving good performances so it’s not boring, not for the first 100 minutes or so anyway. Vincent D’Onofrio is great as Hank’s older brother who’s kind of over all of Hank’s complaining, at least until he tells us how he feels too. Vera Farmiga is badass as Hank’s high school girlfriend.
It’s just The Judge goes on way past 100 minutes and continues explaining and repeating life lessons, with that score telling us how to feel. The trial scenes feature courtroom cinematography 101, craning up from the bench and looking up at majestic lawyers. Here come da’ Judge, with all its baggage, but if you wait until later to see it, lowered expectations might make it a little more enjoyable.