Watching The Judge is a bit like watching two world-class athletes square off in a meaningless exhibition game. There’s the occasional flash of brilliance, and the fun of watching it. Ultimately, though, you know they could each sink five half-court shots in a row and none would have quite the same impact as a simple lay up in a game that actually counted.
All that to say that you can divorce skill from context and still appreciate the skill, but you can’t do the same for dramatic impact.
The context here is that Hank Palmer (Downey) is a hotshot lawyer who claims he doesn’t care that his clients are always guilty. “Innocent people can’t afford me,” he quips. When he gets a call that his mother has died, he pauses just long enough to explain to his adorable daughter that he no longer speaks to her grandpa and to tell his philandering wife that he would just as soon never speak to her again either.
Hank’s arrival in small-town Indiana is met with the requisite mix of strained politeness and casual disdain that foreshadows a dysfunctional family backstory more blatantly than Chekhov’s rifle signals an imminent murder. Sure enough, Hank doesn’t make it out of town before being called to the police station by his older brother (D’Onfrio). The police have circumstantial evidence that the car their father Joseph Palmer (Duvall) was driving hit and killed a man. The elder Palmer, the eponymous magistrate, experienced a chemotherapy induced “time loss” and he can’t remember what happened. He is too stubborn and principled to avail himself of his son’s slick lawyering moves to get away with murder on a technicality, yet Hank sticks around—and is convinced he can pull a “not guilty” verdict from up his sleeve.
Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall are the two headliners here, but they tower over their peers only to the extent that a weak screenplay gives them exponentially more time in the spotlight. It’s not a good sign that in a film which mainly exists to put two icons on screen together, I kept wishing for more scenes with Billy Bob Thornton or Vincent D’Onofrio.
The screenplay simply doesn’t invest the court case with enough intricacy or mystery to hold our attention between the emotional father-son showdowns. The set pieces, where Downey and Duvall finally have at it, make it painfully clear that Hank and Joseph are the two least interesting characters in the film, no matter who’s playing them.
Other characters speak to and of them as though they are larger-than-life archetypes; allusions are made to characters in better stories. But invoking To Kill a Mockingbird to remind us that a great lawyer often pays a steep cultural price for his principles only reminds us that Hank is no Atticus Finch. Having Joseph angrily walk out of a storm cellar into what may be a tornado doesn’t fool anyone into thinking they are watching King Lear. (Really, what dramatist in his right mind invites a comparison with Shakespeare and thinks he won’t end up on the short end of that stick?)
I now risk outraging his prodigious fan base: as talented as Downey is, his screen persona is all wrong for this part. There is much talk about how the judge pushes Hank’s buttons, and there are warnings from his brother that Hank is getting too “wound up.” But the essence of Downey’s charm is his cool aplomb. His characters don’t get “wound up,” even when they are wearing suits of iron and being slammed into the side of a mountain by Norse demigods. Maybe there was too much affinity or respect between the two stars, but I never believed that Hank and Joseph had strains of genuine hate or pain mixed in with their suppressed love, no matter how many times the script told me they did.
All that said: some people enjoy The Harlem Globetrotters just as much as the NBA Finals. There are plenty of opportunities for the stars to spotlight their signature moves.
So if you go to The Judge to genuflect at Duvall’s talent or revel in Downey’s effortless charm, you will certainly get your money’s worth, and more likely than not, you will go home happy. But if you think your ten bucks entitles you to a genuinely good movie, you might be better off heading to the local video store for a DVD rental.
The Judge is rated “R,” primarily for language. The cussing and crude language is not as pervasive as it seems to be in most comedies these days, but it is frequent enough to be an obstacle for those who are bothered by its habitual use. There is one scene of Hank making out with a younger woman he just met and another where he kisses a former girlfriend and makes an indirect reference to his aroused state. Perhaps more distastefully, an encounter that Hank suspects may have been incestuous is played for laughs. We see Hank and his brother drinking, and reference is made to past drug use. At one point Hank urinates on another lawyer’s shoes. One of Hank’s brothers is portrayed as mildly mentally impaired; it is possible that someone uses a culturally unacceptable word for the mentally challenged—but my notes have a question mark by that notation, indicating that I was not sure if I heard it correctly.
Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.
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