The Judge looks like your typical ’90s courtroom drama, playing in the vein of The Rainmaker or The Firm, and looks aren’t deceiving in this particular instance. Starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall as estranged family brought together to face a potential injustice, the film ticks all the expected boxes on the checklist and rarely surprises. Still, The Judge survives on the strength of the performances of the two leads and manages to be a largely enjoyable family drama.
Downey Jr.’s Hank Palmer is a bigshot city lawyer who returns to his minuscule hometown when his mother passes away. Contact with his father, the county judge, has been minimal at best over the past years. But Hank is forced to stay when a murder investigation targets the judge and an implacable prosecutor (played by Billy Bob Thornton) arrives to put Judge Palmer behind bars for the rest of his life. Only Hank can defend his father and his the legacy of his family.
If you’ve seen the trailer for The Judge, the actual movie will probably just feel like an elongated version. Downey Jr. is absolutely perfect for the role, but I don’t mean that as a full compliment. This is a character he’s played over and over again: immoral, arrogant, power-hungry, never home to see his daughter, aces in the workplace at the expense of his real-world relationships, bound to see the error in his ways through the events of the film. He’s basically Tony Stark without the Iron Man suit (so The Judge is Iron Man 3, basically), and it just would have given the film a much-needed edge if the protagonist wasn’t exactly who we imagined him to be.
That said, The Judge feeling like one of those ’90s thrillers that spends equal amounts of time in the courtroom and at the bar after hours – again, think the vibe of The Rainmaker, The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Client, and anything else by John Grisham – isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s been a while since Downey Jr. was in an original, non-comic book movie that’s this good (probably 2009’s The Soloist), and The Judge is certainly comfortable in its own shoes in that sense. The xylophone-and-bass-filled score, the juxtaposition of the big city against the small town, the obligatory “sigh, nothing has changed” line upon Hank’s return to his hometown – sure, this is not uncommon territory, but it can still be fun to retread an old haunt every once in a while.
While the chemistry isn’t as off-the-charts as it should be between the two Roberts, Duvall and Downey Jr. do enjoy a few memorable exchanges together. Billy Bob Thornton is fine but colossally underused, and his character isn’t villainous enough that you root against him during the trial. Vera Farmiga, who plays Hank’s old lover, is either badly miscast or just plain phoning it in (my eyes were closed so I couldn’t tell). The chemistry between her and Downey Jr. is hovering around nil, and their “rekindling love” is the least believable and most tired subplot of the film.
Overall, The Judge is a familiar but enjoyable drama that’s worth seeing if the aforementioned influences are of any interest. I feel obligated to quote the best line, which comes when Hank is peeling out of his driveway at the beginning of the film, mid-argument with his wife, shades on, engine roaring, marriage crumbling, a last request before the departure of the husband: “Water the fucking hydrangeas.” Why wasn’t that the tagline?