The latest film from director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, Shanghai Knights) may have the title and billboards of a John Grisham adaptation, but The Judge is more about family drama than backroom legal dealings. And while the movie has many aspects in place that would predict success – the main two being Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. – I will spoil the rest of this review and let you know that it just doesn’t work.
Downey stars as Hank Palmer, a snarky and successful Chicago defense attorney whose mother has the indecency to die right in the middle of a trial. After a brief but brutal fight with his wife (that apparently ends in divorce), Hank returns to his small hometown of Carlinville for the service. Once there he is reunited with his brothers, Glenn (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong), and his estranged father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall).
The father-son relationship established here between Duvall and Downey is one of the few things that works about the picture. Some of the time. There is a lot of unspoken tension between the two, and both men blame the other for things that cannot be changed. It is a believable dynamic that I’m sure many people will be able to identify with, at least when it isn’t being played to the height of melodrama.
One part of this family unit that does not work, however, is Dale. Upon Dale’s introduction, we quickly learn that he has an intellectual disability that seems to present as a relatively high-functioning form of autism. his portrayal immediately becomes a problem that lasts throughout the film. It is crazy to me that in 2014 we are watching a movie where a disabled character is the butt of the jokes. Whether it’s Dale’s inability to understand his brother’s sarcastic metaphors or the quirky fact that he can’t drink beer without dribbling a little on his face, at several points we are asked to laugh at Dale (and my audience had no problem doing so). Dobkin and the script by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque want to treat Dale like a Joey-from-Friends-esque fool, which is fine, except for the fact that Dale’s disability is so severe that D’Onofrio’s Glenn laments the fact that he’s going to have to take care of his youngest brother for the rest of his life. Sorry movie, you can’t have it both ways.
That doesn’t stop The Judge from trying though. This is a movie that tries and fails to seamlessly blend the comic antics of Robert Downey Jr. junioring around with a story that takes a real turn after Duvall’s character seemingly runs down and kills an ex-con that he sent to jail. Here’s where the legal drama kicks in, as Hank finds himself representing a father who doesn’t like him, against a prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton) with a hard-on for both men.
The early scenes of this courtroom battle work for the movie, but as it becomes protracted, the script begins to rely more on the breakdown in the father-son relationship than the actual matters of the case. And the fact that Billy Bob is just okay with that makes no sense at all.
Ultimately, The Judge just feels like two men reaching desperately for Oscar gold. Duvall may get closer than Downey, but neither actor will win, because really there just isn’t much here. Dobkin doesn’t even know what type of movie this is. Every scene that isn’t between Downey and Duvall has the tone of a completely different movie. Downey’s scenes with Vera Farmiga as his high school sweetheart are straight out of a “who’s-my-daddy?” romantic comedy, while Dax Shepard’s local attorney is starring in a movie about a bumbling, back-country lawyer. Perhaps Dobkin was trying to give each character his or her own plot and stakes, but really it just served to jumble the story he’s actually interested in telling.
It’s possible that my personal experience with the intellectually disabled has colored my perception of the rest of the movie. Maybe sensitivity to Dale’s use in the movie turned me off on the rest of the feature. Maybe. It’s possible. But not plausible. Looking back on The Judge, the only things that warrant a second thought are one or two knockout scenes between the two stars and my curiosity about which actor received top billing. Other than that, I cannot wait until The Judge passes from my mind entirely. Do yourself a favor and don’t let it get in there in the first place.