Some movies are so predictable and transparent in their handling of story and characters that I sometimes shake my head as observing their glaring clumsiness on the screen. Although it is not a lousy film, I shook my head several times while watching “The Judge” mainly because of its uneven, ham-fisted storytelling, and I became more conscious of that rather than getting involved in the story. While its narrative momentum is constantly disrupted by blatant plot turns and many other unnecessary things, most of its characters feel thin and uninteresting despite the actors’ good efforts, and we do not know much about them except their exterior qualities. As a result, we only watch their situation from the distance, and the story becomes more contrived and jumbled as it trudges for nearly 2 hours to arrive at the expected moment of dramatic confrontation.
When we meet Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) during the opening scene, it does not take much time for us to see that he is not a nice guy. As a successful lawyer working in Chicago for years, he is currently working on a major criminal case, and this brash, cynical guy does not give a damn at all about whether his rich client is guilty or not. He will do his legal service as much as paid, and that is all he cares about besides his another win to be attained at the courtroom. In case of his family life, he has recently been divorced from his wife while not so close to his young daughter, and he has also been quite distant from his parents and brothers for many years.
And then he gets a sudden news from his hometown in Indiana. His mother died, and that means he has to go back to the town where he is going to face the remains of the past he left behind a long time ago. While his two brothers, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong), are happy to see Hank again, their father Joseph (Robert Duvall) is not very friendly to his son who returns to attend his dear wife’s funeral, and the estrangement between him and Hank is clearly visible when they come across each other at their family house.
Joseph is already over 70, but this old codger is still active as a town judge who has presided over many small and big cases for more than 40 years. Although he is not that popular with some town folks due to his stern rulings at the town court, he has been respected by many people in the town as an authoritative town elder, and even his own children sometimes call him ‘judge’ instead of ‘dad’ or ‘father’.
After confirmed again of the estrangement and resentment between him and his father, Hank feels no regret about leaving his hometown on the next day after his mother’s funeral, but then he is notified that Joseph is charged with the killing of an ex-con who was sent to the prison by Joseph 20 years ago and then was recently released. Hank goes back to the town as a dutiful son, and, not so surprisingly, he comes to take care of this family matter for himself when it becomes apparent that his father really needs his legal help.
But his father is not a very helpful client. Although a number of major evidences clearly suggest that something must have happened between him and that ex-con guy during that night after his wife’s funeral, Joseph keeps insisting that he does not remember much about that night for some reason, and the situation become more serious as Prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton in an unusually plain, straight role) is quite determined to get Joseph convicted of first degree murder at most.
Of course, there will be a number of moments of revelations along the plot as Hank and Joseph conflict with each other (is that a spoiler?), but the screenplay by Nick Shenk and Bill Dubuque frequently stumbles as making its mechanical moves we can easily predict in advance. Its main mystery, which mostly depends on what really happened during that fateful night, is not interesting enough to hold our attention due to many of its predictable aspects, and it is also hampered by not only thin characterization but also overwrought dramatic moments including a certain scene unfolded on one dark, stormy day. That scene could have been effective as intended, but we can see the strings pulled behind it right from its very beginning, and the way its mood is switched between different modes among the characters is awkward to say the least.
While trying to make a more serious film compared to his previous works such as “Wedding Crashers” (2005) and The Change-up (2011), the director David Dobkin tries to inject some humor into his story at times, but not many of his attempts are successful. For example, we do not have to be reminded again and again of the incompetence of Joseph’s other lawyer through the repeated shots which more look like a redundant running gag, and it seems Dale’s only function in the story is saying unsuitable things at inappropriate moments as your average dim-witted brother, besides providing sentimental home movie clips to be incorporated into the film.
At least, the movie has the actors rightly cast in their respective roles. Robert Downey Jr. is amusing whenever he is allowed to wield his sardonic wit from time to time, and he is also convincing when his character becomes more serious than usual. In case of Robert Duvall, who recently received his 7th Oscar nomination for this film, he fills the role with his own presence as expected, and he and Downey are often an engaging duo on the screen even though they are not helped a lot by the weak screenplay of the film. While the other actors in the movie are mostly wasted in their thankless roles, Vincent D’Onofrio is solid as a gentle brother who had a fair share of disappointment in his life but is not resentful about that in contrast to his father and younger brother, and Vera Farmiga brings warmth to her scenes as a practical woman who has actively moved on with her own life since breaking up with Hank when they were young.
Mainly thanks to its talented actors, “The Judge” is not without entertainment values, but it still feels bland even when it becomes quite mawkish around its ending. I felt more unsatisfied as keeping noticing its visible problems in story and characters, and I was also reminded of more interesting films about father and son relationship. I recently happened to watch a small character drama film called “I Never Sang for My Father” (1970), and I was quite surprised to find that it remains as a powerful, well-acted drama about father and son relationship even after 45 years it was made. That sad, moving film feels a lot more real and insightful than “The Judge”, and I think you will have a better time with that small gem which deserves more attention.