Two for the studio, one for you — a variation of a phrase many an agent recites when talent decides that it wants less Marvel and more Nuart (a famous art-house theater). Travolta was tired of jazz squares and turned to Tarantino to bloody his leather pants to a pulp. Hathaway was over being a princess and quickly saddled into Lee’s controversial western, Brokeback Mountain. While some out-of-character performances mark a crucial turning point in an actor’s ascent, other performances such as Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in the recent release of The Judge shrink in the face of opportunity.
For Downey, The Judge stands as the first in-house release from his production company, Team Downey, which Downey co-owns with wife Susan. The film’s director, David Dobkin, joins Downey in the quest to move away from cast, specifically as the comedy director forever chasing the commercial success of his 2005 adult comedy, Wedding Crashers. Viewers: If you’re intrigued by the idea of an amateurish, Meryl Streep-less version of August Osage County, this could be a new favorite.
Split unevenly between life in the big city and life in a small town, The Judge follows a successful douchebag lawyer named Hank Palmer (Downey), who leaves Chicago and returns home to a small town in Indiana to attend his mother’s funeral. Palmer carries with him the baggage of a cheating housewife and a young daughter who’s in danger of growing up as a relative stranger to her father. Upon arriving in Indiana, Palmer quickly realizes that death doesn’t always bring family together. After several uncomfortable family moments in which Dobkin takes overt symbolism to a new level, Palmer leaves.
Well, he tries to leave.
The older of Palmer’s two brothers, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), calls just before Hank’s returning flight ascends into freedom with the news that their father, the honorable town Judge (Robert Duvall), is suspected of killing a local enemy in a hit and run. Palmer agrees to extend his trip and represent his father, whom he coldly refers to as “The Judge”. While home, Hank confronts the skeletons of his past and the lurking presence of his domineering father with the help of his younger brother’s (Jeremy Strong) home videos and secret meetings with an old flame (Vera Farmiga). Simply put, this film forces many fractured relationships into a dimly lit house and gives us 141 minutes of Hank scrambling to repair as many as he can before the film ends — or someone else dies.
Lead actors Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall bring a seasoned humanity to an explosive father-son relationship, and work well against the supporting cast: notably the competitive rapport between Hank Palmer and longtime rival Dwight Dickman (Billy Bob Thornton). Undoubtedly, the strongpoint of the film is casting. Downey shines in familiar territory as a lawyer whose pithy one-liners such as “everyone wants Atticus Finch until there’s a dead hooker in a bathtub” provide moments of humor in this weighty film. However, it’s quite difficult to separate Hank Palmer’s brash remarks from Iron Man’s Tony Stark, which is less reflective of Downey’s range and more reflective of a script that seeks to imitate rather than innovate.
While we can assume that Dobkin’s voice is minimal in the actual script (he received story credit, but not screenwriting), there is a lapse in continuity from page to screen that falls to the director to fix. Outside of the core father-son relationship lay Hank’s relationships with his wife, daughter, lover, possible new daughter, siblings, etc. Dobkin forces each storyline to compete equally instead of layering the emphasis and importance of each storyline. Individually, each storyline is definitely interesting, but pushed together they fail to find solid footing and frankly left me feeling exhausted and unable to maintain my interest in the outcome of many characters.
Nevertheless, there is still some significance to take from Dobkin’s attempts to parse through the major relationships in Hank’s life. Are these characters perfect? No. At times saturated in obtuse symbolism? Sure. But, there is just something about the nuclear relationships between The Judge and Hank, Hank and his daughter, and the multigenerational desperation to gain a father’s approval that feels relatable and intriguing to anyone who has quarreled with a parent.
Moments of weakness throughout the film – though somewhat major in scale – often leave room for Dobkin to insert what he’s known for: comedy. All things considered, The Judge is a solid introduction into a world where Downey is still able to do what he does best with the added bonus of a Marvel-less landscape. As for Dobkin, his visual portrayal of this complicated story is beautiful and will hopefully be matched in other areas as he continues to explore the landscape of non-comedy features.
A story that tries too hard, The Judge manages to hold up in court and create somewhat memorable moments in the process.