“The Judge” Movie Review

     Director David Dobkin (“Wedding Crashers”, “Change-Up”) tackles serious subject matter with his new film “The Judge”, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall.  Working from a script by Nick Schenk (“Gran Torino”) and Bill Dubuque, Dobkin seemingly had no problem attracting top level acting talent with Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio and Billy Bob Thornton co-starring to round out a true A-list cast.  Unfortunately, the film quickly devolves into a pretentious, self absorbed family melodrama not unlike last month’s “This Is Where I Leave You.”.  At a bloated and overlong 141 minutes, the story chronicles the aftermath of a death in yet another dysfunctional family, but makes a sharp turn into the confines of an uninspired courtroom drama.  Despite the efforts of its stars, “The Judge” falls flat by the second act and never recovers.

     If Tony Stark were a hot shot defense attorney rather than “Iron Man”, you’d have Hank Palmer, played of course by Robert Downey Jr..  Dobkin uses the first scene to let us know the personality type his main character possesses as he finds himself in an out of courtroom negotiation with a prosecutor in the men’s room.  The conversation ends with Hank turning towards the other attorney as he is using a urinal, thus urinating on the guy.  The scene reeks of a set up for the character and the huge fall he will take later in the film, since I doubt that kind of unprofessional behavior would get past the karma gods of storytelling.  While in the courtroom attempting to get his latest dirty client off, Hank receives a phone call and learns his mother has unexpectedly passed away.

     This is where the cliches begin, as the big city lawyer is now thrust into the harsh circumstances of the small town in Indiana he grew up in and the father, Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), of whom he does not speak to.  And what is it anyway with seemingly every film of this genre using the death of either the mother or father as a proverbial spring board to endless scenes that divulge deep dark secrets everyone has held onto for decades?  “August: Osage County” handled these types of scenes with a true mastery of the dramatic, but “The Judge” treats them as if they are just a given within the genre.  From the moment Hank arrives, he displays an obvious disdain for his now grieving father, passing on his sympathies only when absolutely necessary.

     Hank’s two brothers fill the necessary slots in which every movie family seems to always have.  The older brother, Glen (D’Onofrio), runs a local tire shop and is haunted by an accident he endured as a teen that prevented him from going on to becoming a big league baseball player.  The younger brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong), suffers from mental illness and still lives at home, spending his time shooting films on an 8mm camera and editing them by splicing the film together.  Dobkin does everything he can to ensure we know this small town in Indiana is populated by simple Americans, and the actions and personalities of Hank’s two brothers are front and center in exemplifying this.  Doing so creates a stark contrast between Hank and the rest of the family, which in turn drives the proceedings to various inevitable outcomes.

     Then the police come knocking at the door.  Joseph, a town judge for the past 42 years, is now a murder suspect in the killing of a local thug he put away for various violent crimes decades before.  When Joseph’s car is found to have front end damage and blood matching the victim, he is charged with Murder, thus setting up the obvious scenario in which Hank will represent him at trial.  The prosecutor is played by Billy Bob Thornton in a complete waste of his talents as an actor.  If you watched the recent “Fargo” mini series, it’s really difficult to go from seeing him perform at such a high level there and then see him in “The Judge” as merely a placeholder in the court room.  Same goes for Vera Farmiga, who pops up throughout as Hank’s childhood sweetheart.  With her turns in both “Up In The Air”, as well as television’s “Bates Motel”, you wonder what was in it for her when she agreed to this role which has her strangely and coincidentally single when Hank shows up for his mother’s funeral.

     With Hank in the middle of a divorce at home, his young daughter, Lauren (Emma Tramblay), flies in for a couple days in the midst of the drama that is Joseph’s trial, but then flies home never to be seen again.  We see her briefly at the beginning of the film, but having her appear for a few minutes and then having her leave, never to be seen again, makes no sense.  It’s as if Dobkin found himself with so many character arcs to establish and complete  that he really didn’t know where to go with a few of them.  Fortunately, he does focus on the relationship between Hank and Joseph when it is most important for him to do so.  There are several touching and emotional scenes between Downey Jr. and Duvall that nearly save the film from itself, but not quite.  There was enough here to completely cut the predictable courtroom scenes and concentrate on the many other issues the characters in the film deal with, but Dobkin, like Hank seems content with dragging things on with needless cross examinations and a punchless conclusion. GRADE: C-