The Judge is at its heart a simple film on a complex issue. On the surface the movie presents the classic movie trope of a ‘big city kid goes back home to his Midwestern roots.’ While that familiar trope is ever present the movie is more than it appears to be, but that isn’t always a good thing. In the case of The Judge there is good and bad that tends to seep through the cracks of the main narrative. Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is a hot shot criminal defense attorney who during a high level case gets a call that his mother has passed away. In the midst of his seeming perfect life, Hank packs his bags and heads back to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana; so the trope begins. While a loving relationship was obvious between Hank and his mother, his paternal relationship was nonexistent. Hank’s father, Joe (Robert Duvall), known mostly as just The Judge, is a cold and brutal father. Never letting up on Hank and his big city ways. Never being understanding or the least bit compassionate towards his middle son. His almost cartoon-ish hatred for his son gets a tad out of hand in the first third of the movie. Luckily, director David Dobkin, works to soften the man with a heart of coal as time goes on. The audience never has a chance to like Joe, but they learn to respect him. An interesting juxtaposition to Hank’s character who you like and respect from the beginning, even when he is a scoundrel.
When the Judge is accused of hitting and killing someone on the night of his wife’s funeral Hank is forced to come to his father’s rescue whether he likes it or not. The trailers for this movie do a pretty good job of establishing that as the narrative of the film. A father and son working together and through their problems in the courtroom, but is that why we are here? I would argue that is not why we are here at all. The true crux of The Judge is how to deal with aging parents. There will be a time when a child has to become the caretaker of their parent(s). When a child might have better answers than mom and dad. There will also be a time when a parent must let go and relinquish the reins to their offspring. A difficult task for all parties involved but in a way, as The Judge postulates, completely inevitable.
As Joe Palmer hires a bumbling lawyer, C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard) to represent him instead of his son, we get further conflict. Hank is constantly maligned by his father. Whether for his skills, his past, or his marriage Hank is given no quarter by his father even in the times of turmoil. While Joe seems nicer to Hank's brothers, there is some years of abuse lying under the surface for them as well. The brothers seem to constantly feel the brunt of Joe time and again as they stayed behind in Carlinville while Hank left all those years ago. The youngest brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong) has some disabilities and hence further reinforces the notion of taking care of aging parents. Dale represents the question of children who can never take care of their parents or even themselves. The oldest brother, Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) is the utmost example of the left behind in the small town trope. His life isn’t what he believed it would be and he’s sullen and angry about it. Short anger outbursts with speeches of exceptional meaning play to the opposite of Robert Downey Jr.’s staccato speech pattern that seems to be on rapid fire; perfect mismatch.
The Judge deals with heavy topics under the guise of a simply story. The scenes of Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. trading verbal blows are the easily some of the films best. I found myself wanting more of it, but sadly that never came. Duvall’s portrayal as Joe was wonderful. An old judge who never has a nice word to say, but absolutely demands respect. Vincent D’Onofrio was great in the moments he had but he was tragically underused. Robert Downey Jr. as expected steals the show. His fast talk style makes him a fish out of water, and that works towards the larger narrative. The first half of the movie is an absolute mess unfortunately. Never quite gaining its footing until the trial gets underway. That was the most frustrating part of the film. So many great factors that just couldn’t get together from the onset. Strong performances all around but poor choices of minimizing certain characters and pushing up others. For example, a stronger showing of D’Onofrio’s Glen would have helped round out Joe and Hank specifically. In the end, The Judge makes some grand gestures, but fails to deliver on some of them. While not being a failure by any means the movie just doesn’t hit the mark that it should have.
[easyreview title= "Review of The Judge" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="3.5" overall= false]