The Judge is not so much a courtroom drama as it is the story of a last-ditch effort to salvage something positive from a horrible father-son relationship. I’m not 100% sure the movie delivers, but it does try, and that’s something. I kind of liked it in a “Robert Downey Junior is gorgeous and the rest of the movie is okay” way. I mean, he’s worth watching. The rest of the cast is fine. Robert Duvall is fine, not achieving greatness in this role, but then, he’s already done that.
There are no real authentic emotional moments. We don’t laugh or cry. There’s no real suspense. We don’t gasp. We don’t grab the arm of the person we’re sitting with. I thought things like, “Yeah, that’s right,” and “No, that probably wouldn’t happen,” but I was never wholly engaged in the story. Plus, the end of the trial and the end of the movie were both unlikely and not fully grounded in human nature. People do what people do, and it’s jarring when movies make people do what people would not do in the situation. When that happens, I’m pulled out of the experience and I start to think bad things about the writers and the director.
Robert Downey, Jr. is Hank Palmer, a high-powered and very expensive criminal defense lawyer. He goes home to Small Town America for his mother’s funeral and, while there, must interact with his oddly non-emotive brothers and his emotionally withholding father. He also runs into an old girlfriend and her daughter who are supposed to matter to the plot, but I’m not sure they do. Girlfriend is played by the lovely Vera Farmiga. There’s an awkward bit with her daughter.
Robert Duvall plays Joseph Palmer, Small Town America’s presiding judge for the past 42 years, who finds himself on the wrong end of a murder charge. He needs a first-rate lawyer, but doesn’t want his son to defend him because he doesn’t like him. Events occur that force the Judge to retain his son (albeit pro bono), and through the process of the ongoing case we see into the broken father-son relationship.
The movie goes from scene to predictable scene, I’m yawning here. The story was nice and almost sort of believable, but then they did that thing they did in Sweet Home Alabama at the end. You know that part where a seriously successful person decides it’s maybe better to be mediocre and ordinary and live in Podunk than it is to be out there being amazing.
Maybe for a lot of people this is true. But a brilliant lawyer like Hank Palmer is no way in a million years going to be happy living in rural Indiana trying simple assault cases and aspiring to be nobody. I don’t buy it. World class brains don’t settle. They can’t. Mozart can’t decide to be Salieri anymore than the other way around.
I had a few problems with the script. Here’s one: the prosecutor is a guy from out of town. It’s Billy Bob Thornton and he’s fun to hate in lots of movies, including this one, but–and I’m no expert–murder cases are handled by the D.A., not by someone who traveled down from the Big City because he wants to put an arrogant family in its place. He’s never referred to as the D.A., and he’s totes non-electable to the position, so I don’t know. I hated him so much as POTUS in Love Actually that I still can’t deal. (Shoot, now I’m thinking about Hugh Grant dancing down the stairs in Number Ten. Now you are too.)
It’s not a great movie, but it’s okay, and if your choice is this movie or Left Behind, you need to choose this one. It’s good enough. Probably worth your money. Not spectacular. Not nearly as good as the trailer made us hope it would be.