“My father is a lot of unpleasant things, but murderer is not one of them. ”
Sometimes, a good drama is all you need. One that has strong and interesting characters, a story that will tug at your heart strings, and an interesting story to pull you through it all. Sometimes films like this are clearly made as Academy Awards bait, but that’s ok, because as long as the movie is good, it shouldn’t pull away from your enjoyment of the film. Such is the case of David Dobkin’s new film, The Judge, starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall. Downey, Jr. plays Hank Palmer, a lawyer who uses his considerable talent and skills to get criminals off what they’re being charged, no matter the crime. But while he may be slick in court, his life outside the courtroom is a mess. Faced with an oncoming divorce, and an already broken family, Palmer is forced to come home when his mother passes away. Things are rough when he gets home, as he and his father, Joseph Palmer (Duvall), continue to butt heads and fight, never seeing eye to eye. But as Hank is about to head home, his father, the longtime town Judge, is faced with a manslaughter charge. Forced to put their past problems aside, Hank must find a way to clear his father’s name in a case that could not only take his father’s reputation away, but it could send his father to prison.
This film is clearly one that is made to show of the talents of its cast, and that is honestly the film’s strongest hand. With the likes of Downey, Jr. and Duvall, you have to give them material to work with that will bring out the best in them, and this is a film that gives them a chance to really give some powerful performances. Downey, Jr.’s Hank Palmer is maybe his best role since the 2007 David Fincher film, Zodiac. It’s a really strong, moving, and wonderful performance, and one that Downey, Jr. simply owns. Sure, there’s a small layer of the usual Downey, Jr. snark, but it’s balanced with an unusually weighted performance that we haven’t seen him give in a long time. It’s great to see him getting out of the action roles and returning to something more akin to Chaplin, really flexing his acting muscles. Duvall is also great as Joseph, Hank’s father, who’s a proud, strong willed, and stubborn man who just wants to hold onto his legacy as long as he can. It’s not a huge stretch for him, but Duvall has never really phoned in a performance, and he does great work here. The way he and Downey, Jr. play off each other is incredible, and there’s a real palpable tension and chemistry between them. There performances really carry this film from beginning to end, and really make it feel much stronger overall.
There’s a great group of supporting characters as well, from the likes of great character actors such as Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thorton, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Jeremy Strong. Thorton plays Dwight Dickham, a man with a personal history with Hank, and the opposing lawyer on Joseph’s case. Thorton rarely gives a bad performance, and as always, he’s strong here. It’s a good role for him, and he chews up his scenes very well. Much like Thorton, Farmiga is very good in her role as Samantha Powell, Hank’s old girlfriend, it’s just too bad she’s not given much to do in the film, to the point she feels like she’s almost expendable. But it’s really D’Onofrio and Strong who give the two best supporting performances in the film. The duo play Hank’s brothers, and they knock their roles out of the park. D’Onofrio is so contained and calm, it’s a very subtle performance, which is so different than his louder, larger than life roles many will be used to him in. But Strong in particular, as the mentally impaired Dale, who has a fascination with home videos, who really stands out. Dale is a great character, and Strong really owns the role. It never feels like he goes too far with it, and it’s handled in a very real way. He’s honestly one of the film’s biggest highlights, and it would be great to see his career continue to grow from here.
A film like this can be a balancing act, because it’s not just a family drama, but a court room drama as well. So you need to have a director and a script that can handle that. David Dobkins is mostly known for his work on comedies such as Wedding Crashers and The Change Up, is jumping into his first real foray into dramatic territory, and he handles the film very well. It’s a well shot, well put together film, and Dobkins doesn’t really seem to be out of his element. There’s a nice balance to everything to the film, and he you can tell he really felt comfortable behind the lends, which is especially good when you have to powerhouse leads in Downey, Jr. and Duvall. The script, written by Bill Dubuque and Nick Schenk, is also mostly balanced, but there’s a little too much going on at times for its own good. There’s a whole plot centered around Hank and Samantha’s past, which honestly, the film could do without. The two are great characters, and Downey, Jr. and Farmiga are fantastic together, but the plot point takes up a little too much time in the film, which would easily have been trimmed out. But everything else really seems to gel well, with the court room scenes in particular being some of the film’s strongest, but the best moment in the film comes from a scene between Downey, Jr. in Duvall where they confront each other in the middle of the storm. It’s one of the script’s strongest scenes, and you can’t help but get swept away in it. It’s a really important scene in the film, and Dobkins really brings it home with the help of his actors.
Many will probably fault the film for being a little too schmaltzy, but if you can get past the Frank Capra style drama, there’s a lot to be liked here. The story really is a tale of redemption, addiction, finding one’s true self, and burying old wounds, and it handles all these things brilliantly. The family dynamic is sweet, sad, and heartbreaking all at once, and as the film unfolds and the underlining truth to a lot of what’s happening comes to light, you can’t help but feel the pain that Hank must feel. The way things are unveiled slowly as the film progresses along with the case really works in the film’s favor, and while it may clumsily tug at the heart strings at times, other times it completely nails what it’s trying to do. That’s all you can ask from a movie like this, and with the strong performances and great story, the film works much more often than when it doesn’t.
The Judge isn’t a perfect film, but it’s one that audiences will eat up for the strong performances of Downey, Jr. and Duvall alone. While the film gets a little muddled throughout, it’s not enough for it to stop the film from being highly enjoyable from beginning to end, even if at times the emotional tugging seems almost forced. This is a more mature Frank Capra style film, and David Dobkins does great work behind the camera to bring it to life. While it may not win any awards, it’s ok, because that’s not what will hold the true merits of the film. Backed by strong performances from the supporting players, an interesting and intriguing story, and a real sense of family and court room drama, the film really just gels forward when it needs to. It’s not one of the year’s top ten, but it’s a fun and solid film all the way that deserves to be seen.