Review: The Judge

Thanks to the massive success of the Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes franchises, Robert Downey Jr. has proven to be one of the biggest movie stars working in the business. With those major roles, Downey Jr. has cemented himself as one of Hollywood’s most powerful players, so he can act in any film he wants. But the question on everybody’s mind is this: can he go back to make character-centered dramas? These types of films were a huge staple in his early career, and now, with this year’s “The Judge,” he hopes to prove he still has acting chops and isn’t just Tony Stark.

The Judge is a courtroom and family drama about Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.), a big city lawyer who travels back to his hometown in Indiana for his mother’s funeral. He hates the idea of going back to his roots and having to face his overbearing family, especially his father (Duvall) who acts cold-hearted and distant towards him. Hank wants to be out of that place as soon as possible, but when his father is convicted of the crime of running down and killing a man he once put away in prison, his choices become limited.

With the family’s options running low, Hank agrees to represent his father in court to keep him out of prison, despite the many differences and rough relationship that they have.

It’s fortunate that this difficult relationship is what the movie is based around, because the strongest elements of the film are the father-son conflict moments and the strong performances Downey and Duvall bring to the table. It’s a real treat to watch Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes, but I found it quite enjoyable to see him in something other than a blockbuster where he is playing a down-to-earth character. He may have Tony Stark traits, but he makes Hank Palmer his own. Along with Downey, Robert Duvall deserves many shout-outs as well. This is the best performance he’s had in a very long time, not just character-wise, but acting-wise as well.

I don’t expect this film to pop up a whole lot come awards season, but Duvall should be recognized for his outstanding work here in the supporting actor category.

But these two very strong performances aren’t enough to cover up of the shortcomings that plague this melodramatic mess. The supporting cast is underused and wasted overall. Vera Farmiga plays an old flame of Downey’s who is so uninteresting that I wish her whole sub-plot had been cut, and Billy Bob Thorton, while not giving a bad performance, felt like he was acting like he would on any other Hollywood set.

Often times, if done correctly, the technical side of a movie goes unnoticed, but when done poorly it can be an unpleasant distraction. The first half hour of this film had dreadful editing and transitions that made it look like a student production, while the entirety of the film was full of over-exposed lighting and white lights that made everyone look like they were about to enter the gates of heaven.

Why David Dobkin was chosen to direct this film I don’t think I will ever understand. Sure, he was the man behind the successful “Wedding Crashers,” but with movies like “Fred Claus” and “The Change-Up” on his resume, he doesn’t seem like the likely candidate to helm a character-driven drama like “The Judge.” Most of the blame can be put on him for the film’s poor pacing and lack of identity. It’s trying to be too many things at one time and just can’t seem to settle.

A bloated runtime could also be put to blame. Not only is the film sub-par, but it overstays its welcome long enough to make it obvious how sub-par it is. With meaningless sub-plots being cut and a quicker resolution, this could have been painless.

While I have my issues with “The Judge,” I do believe it can find its audience, just not in the theater. It’s a fine movie to see on cable or HBO if you are just looking for something to pass the time. But the reasons it would even be mildly worth watching on TV are purely for Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. Scenes where it’s just the two if them, whether they are in a fight or talking calmly, will grab your attention and may even hit close to home.

“The Judge” is a misguided drama that would be completely swept under Hollywood’s rug had it not been for these two powerhouse performances. Just goes to show how big of a star Robert Downey Jr. really is.