The Judge, a drama about family dysfunction and coming together under hard circumstances, pulls at the heartstrings so hard and so long that it feels more like a tug-of-war.
It centers on a pugnacious Chicago lawyer and prodigal son who, after his mother dies, reluctantly returns to his small Indiana town to face the wrath of an angry father who may be either drinking again or suffering mental decline. On top of that, Dad may have accidentally killed someone. Then there’s the adorable kid whose comfortable world may be upended by divorce and the mentally challenged brother who’s obsessed with an old movie camera and its home movies.
They’re all here in this change of pace from director David Dobkin, best-known for such light fare as Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus and The Change-Up. And it’s all done in loud, shouted, you-can’t-handle-the-truth tones that scream Oscar bait, and they do it for a long time; the film runs nearly 2 1/2 hours.
Yet, for all of that, The Judge isn’t totally disposable, thanks to Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr., who, as the father and son at the center of the story, give it a focus and an edge.
Downey is Hank Palmer, the kind of successful but morally bankrupt criminal defense attorney who makes ambulance chasers look like saints. He seems to have it all: a booming career, a fantastic house, a hot sports car, a gorgeous wife (Sarah Lancaster) and a beautiful, precocious daughter (Emma Tremblay).
But much of his life is tearing apart at the seams. He and his wife are in the midst of breaking up, and then comes he gets the news that his mother has suddenly died.
That means going back home to see the family he long ago abandoned, including working-class older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong), who uses photography as a security blanket, and dad Joseph, a gruff but respected local judge who now finds himself on the other side of the bench.
Just as Hank is getting ready to leave town after the funeral, he gets word that his father has been involved in a hit-and-run. The prosecuting attorney (Billy Bob Thornton) is an old foe of Hank’s and would like nothing better than to see the Palmer family go down.
So, Hank has to stay to defend his father — and dredge up long-buried emotional baggage in the process. That includes the girlfriend (Vera Farmiga) he left behind all those years ago.
Downey manages to pivot from the smart-aleck wiseacre at the beginning of the film — which is basically a spin take-off on his Iron Man sensibility — to something deeper as the story progresses. But it’s Duvall as Joseph — diffident, difficult, demanding and yet increasingly vulnerable — who really gives The Judge a solid anchor to drop in this choppy family sea.
Based on a script by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, The Judge has a few standout moments, and these are generally when Duvall and Downey are on screen together. They may not be enough to counterbalance the bloat of the rest of the film, but they keep it from completely sinking under the weight of soggy sentimentality.
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio
Director: David Dobkin.
Screenwriters: Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque.
A Warner Brothers release. Running time: 141 minutes. Language including some sexual references. Playing at area theaters.