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the judge review

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Director David Dobkin gave us “ Wedding Crashers ” nearly a decade ago, and we who hooted heartily at the disreputable acts abetted by the rite of holy matrimony will be forever grateful. We might even pardon any lingering counts against his twin crimes against comedy, “ Fred Claus ” and “ The Change-Up .”

Now here comes “The Judge,” an unabashedly adult drama and a steadfastly old-fashioned one. Robert Downey Jr. is jaded big-city defense attorney Hank Palmer, a specialist in getting unsavory white-collar clients off the hook.  As he puts it, “Innocent people can’t afford me.” He is pitted against Robert Duvall as Hank’s estranged dad, Joseph, an upstanding small-town magistrate who suddenly finds himself facing a possible murder rap and relunctantly ends up relying on his hotshot son as his attorney.

You can fairly smell the passion behind this project wafting off the screen. Dobkin, whose father was a lawyer, spent a number of years in pursuit of this opportunity to prove himself as adept at serious subjects as silly ones.  Studio types would look at the script and say, “But it’s not funny.” His 1998 breakout film, " Clay Pigeons ," was a dark and nasty crime comedy, as black and violent as they come. But it was still a comedy. 

Dobkin’s persistence has paid off in certain ways, mainly because it provides both its leads with an arena in which to occasionally show off their strengths. Downey gets to engage in his trademark hyper-verbal glibness but with a black sheep’s injured sadness in his eyes.  Duvall is the embodiment of grizzled authority but undercut by the grimace-inducing infirmities of old age.

Yet, there also are some less welcome elements and a certain dragginess to contend with as Dobkin overloads his plot with too many bits of business on the way to a John Grisham-lite finale. Actually, make that bits of Bit-O-Honey candy, one of the many repeated visual allusions to a past that tore these two men apart. As is often the case when an artist finally is allowed to achieve his dream,  the director adds unnecessary clutter – there is much ado about hydrangeas as well as an old Metallica T-shirt  -- as if he fears he will never get a chance to do a drama again.

Before "The Judge"’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, Dobkin told the audience that he  always wanted to do the kind of movie that doesn’t get made anymore.  In other words, a human story. And themes found in the specific examples he cited as his inspirations -- “Kramer vs Kramer,” “ Terms of Endearment ” and “ The Verdict ” – are duly reflected in "The Judge."

Downey copes with his disintegrating marriage while attempting to get closer to his dumpling-cheeked daughter as a potential custody battle looms, just as in “ Kramer vs. Kramer .”  After his legal shark returns to the small Midwest pond of his youth for his mother’s funeral, he and a perpetually disapproving Duvall bob and weave around each other like a pair of emotionally battered heavyweights—not unlike Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine in “Terms of Endearment.” And there are plenty of “Verdict”-style legal entanglements as Hank  is forced to represent his father while shaking out the potentially unpleasant truth behind a car accident that is considered a possible vehicular homicide.

Meanwhile, a chorus line of family skeletons shake and rattle at regular intervals, some involving middle-child Hank’s brothers.  And if anything is emblematic of the strengths and weaknesses of The Judge, it is these two siblings. As eldest son, Glen, Vincent D’Onofrio carries the burden of regret and responsibility on his beefy shoulders as a former baseball prodigy whose sports career hopes were dashed by an injury. As an unexpected MVP, D’Onofrio solemnly provides the perfect surefooted counterweight between the clash of the titans escalating between Downey and Duvall.

Then there is slow-witted youngest son Dale, played by Jeremy Strong .  His innocent questions often provide obtuse humor even if his near-childlike state goes unexplained. But too often  Dale ends up being more of a device than a fully fleshed-out  character as he shows new and old home movies shot on an vintage Super 8MM camera as a way of  filling in the back story that haunts the Palmer clan. 

Vera Farmiga , whose local diner owner was cruelly dumped by Hank when they were in high school, seems almost part of a different movie. One by Frank Capra . She primarily exists to provide a sympathetic ear for Downey and some undercooked romantic relief. In fact, a whole parade of colorful performers passes by, including Billy Bob Thornton as a slim and steely silver fox of a prosecutor who battles Hank; Ken Howard as the no-nonsense walrus-like judge presiding over Papa Palmer’s case; and Dax Shepard as an unseasoned rube litigator. 

Ultimately, it is the core father-son relationship that is put on trial, and you have to wait until the end before Dobkin unclenches his need to control and just allows Downey and Duvall to fearlessly go at it together at full force.

Still, for almost every choice that rankles – using a raging tornado as a metaphor for the storm inside the Palmer homestead is so obvious, it hurts – there usually is something else that offers compensation. Probably my favorite scene, one that shows Dobkin still has it funny-wise: When Hank, looking to cherry-pick less than salt-of-the-earth types as potential jury members, decides to ask the candidates to reveal the bumper-sticker sayings on their cars. A woman with the word “Tolerance” spelled out with religious symbols gets a thumbs down. The guy whose saying is, “Wife and Dog Missing. Reward for Dog”? He gets a thumbs up. Way up.  

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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Film credits.

The Judge movie poster

The Judge (2014)

Rated R for language including some sexual references

141 minutes

Robert Downey Jr. as Henry "Hank" Palmer

Robert Duvall as Judge Joseph "Joe" Palmer

Vera Farmiga as Samantha

Vincent D'Onofrio as Glen Palmer

Jeremy Strong as Dale Palmer

Billy Bob Thornton as Dwight Dickham

David Krumholtz as Mike Kattan

Emma Tremblay as Lauren Palmer

Dax Shepard as C.P. Kennedy

Ken Howard as Judge Warren

Leighton Meester as Carla

Balthazar Getty as Deputy Hanson

Grace Zabriskie as Mrs. Blackwell

  • David Dobkin
  • Bill Dubuque
  • Nick Schenk

Original Music Composer

  • Thomas Newman


  • Janusz Kaminski

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The Judge Reviews

the judge review

The familiarity of the story hurts what is Dobkin's otherwise pleasantly sincere and straightforward direction, and a number of fine performances.

Full Review | Original Score: 2.5/4 | Jul 18, 2022

the judge review

Robert Duvall gives a startlingly visceral performance in Robert Downey Jr's courtroom drama.

Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | May 26, 2021

the judge review

The hardest working movie in show business. It's a film that wants to check all the boxes and tries just a little too hard.

Full Review | Original Score: 3/5 | Feb 2, 2021

the judge review

The supporting cast is a stellar assemblage of character actors, each offering a level of entertainment to compensate for lingering moments of overly sentimental reminiscence.

Full Review | Original Score: 6/10 | Dec 4, 2020

the judge review

It vacillates between middlebrow familial melodrama, murder mystery, and half-baked courtroom drama.

Full Review | Original Score: 1.5/5 | Sep 6, 2019

the judge review

It'll be great to watch while ironing your clothes one day.

Full Review | Aug 31, 2019

A surprisingly moving and compelling drama which, despite a lengthy running time, does not outstay its welcome and gives Downey Jr. scope to exhibit his considerable talents.

Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | May 31, 2019

There are the makings of a good, old-fashioned family drama here, but the film is bogged down by cliché and predictability that permeate the script.

Full Review | Mar 2, 2019

Robert Downey Jr. relishes this role, and it shows.

Full Review | Jan 30, 2019

the judge review

A good example of talented actors taking mediocre material and making it passable entertainment.

Full Review | Jan 25, 2019

the judge review

THE JUDGE is nothing more than an overwrought family film with a random appearance by Billy Bob Thornton and a few F-bombs for dramatic effect.

Full Review | Original Score: C- | Dec 8, 2018

In the end, the absolutely brilliant performances of Downey and Duvall make the movie worth every minute, despite the shortcomings of the script.

Full Review | Original Score: 7/10 | Nov 3, 2018

the judge review

It's not particularly surprising, but I admit it was an agreeable and sometimes emotional experience [Full review in Spanish]

Full Review | Original Score: 3/4 | Jan 30, 2018

the judge review

For a 140 minute movie, it's just painstakingly obvious that there is material here that should have been chopped out

Full Review | Original Score: 3/5 | Dec 2, 2017

This is a tale encapsulated simply enough within the deceptively simple parenthesis of a small-town family bonding saga. And of course, Downey and Duvall shine.

Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Nov 11, 2017

The main issue with The Judge is that it's too long and schmaltzy, and the length makes the schmaltz worse because you have that much longer to be aware of it.

Full Review | Oct 18, 2017

Downey's Hank is basically Downey playing a character carefully calibrated for audience sympathies -- hey he's a smug jerk of a lawyer but he's a really good Dad to his loving young daughter.

Full Review | Original Score: 1.5/5 | Feb 28, 2017

the judge review

It remains watchable to the very end, mostly thanks to a stolid cast that absolutely refuses to be sucked into the muddied tropes that make up the screenplay.

Full Review | Original Score: 2.5/5 | Apr 14, 2016

One of those films that goes under the radar but has everything in it, making it a great film. [Full review in Spanish]

Full Review | Apr 11, 2016

The main plot anchors itself with quite a lot of naturalism, an ironic half-smile, and that measured point of repulsion-attraction mastered by the great Luchini, expert on human toads that tie us with their tongues. [Full Review in Spanish]

Full Review | Original Score: 4/5 | Apr 7, 2016

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The Judge film still

The Judge review: jury in, gavel out on Robert Downey Jr courtroom drama

Downey Jr defends estranged dad Robert Duvall in a strange tonal pick-n-mix that has opened the Toronto film festival

Real life bites at Tiff 2014

T he director David Dobkin has made two jolly comedies with Owen Wilson – Shanghai Knights and The Wedding Crashers – and one film in which Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds accidentally swap bodies after weeing into the same magic fountain.

He has not, before now, made a drama. Actually, in some sense, he still hasn’t. The Judge fancies itself a grand courtroom thriller, the tale of revenge and betrayal, class tension and chronic illness, civic integrity versus personal pride. But it’s a total tonal gumbo, which sometimes treats its topics with kid gloves, at others chucks them in the air and juggles. It’s a film to absolutely scramble your taste radar. Watching it is like snacking in someone else’s fridge with your eyes shut.

Robert Downey Jr plays Hank, a hotshot big-city lawyer with flexible morals and no interest in pro bono. A couple of early scenes show him making mincemeat in the courtroom, smacking down peers, practically cackling – an alpha male easily as ruthless and ambitious as mid-period Paul Robinson .

But such posturing masks private pain: Hank’s wife is divorcing him, his moppet daughter misses him and he has no contact with his dad (Robert Duvall), a judge in smalltown Indiana. Yet it is to pop’s frosty embrace that he must return after his mum dies abruptly. And there he must stay after Duvall’s character is accused of a hit-and-run the night of her funeral. Can Hank bring himself to defend the old man, given their mysterious history?

Robert Downey Jr and Duvall in The Judge

The Judge is a timeless film, in that it could have been made at almost any point over the past 80 years: rote plot, functional support, well-signalled twists. It’s a two-seater star vehicle offering little legroom for other passengers. The leads go full-throttle. Duvall is as gummily charismatic as ever, Downey good casting – nothing if not a convincing tool, his self-conscious smirk a neat fit for the part. Yet his vanity trips him up. When Hank puts on his old Metallica T-shirt and freewheels nostalgically downhill on his racer, we’re meant to be amused – get off the bike, granddad! But these are body-appropriate togs; the joke won’t work if you’ve just allowed your leading man to show off his washboard torso.

The rest of the cast aren’t so indulged. Jeremy Strong plays a cookie-cutter savant brother with a handy hobby (splicing together old Super 8s); Vera Farmiga is shot through seven layers of Vaseline as Hank’s old flame. The first entrance of Billy Bob Thornton as Dwight Dickham, the prosecution, gets hope springing. But the script sells him short. Dickham’s only real hint of devilishness is immaculate facial hair and ownership of a super-snazzy folding silver water beaker, the kind of thing David Blaine might take on a camping trip.

Case for the defence … The Judge

After two hours of switchblade swerves between sweet and sour, larks and drama, you start feeling queasy. The bonding over diarrhoea. The earnest gasps from the public gallery. The lol-tastic incest. The hard-boiled nuggets (“Everyone wants Atticus Finch till there’s a dead hooker and a hot tub”) floating about on a sea of treacle. Dobkin is one moment too on-the-money, the next jabbing away, miles off.

What should be his defence? Diminished capacity? That’s too harsh, for there are mitigating factors. Sadly there’s no denying the charge: first-degree cheese, with intent.

  • First look review
  • Robert Downey Jr
  • Drama films
  • Comedy films
  • Toronto film festival
  • Toronto film festival 2014

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Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall in The Judge (2014)

Big-city lawyer Hank Palmer returns to his childhood home where his father, the town's judge, is suspected of murder. Hank sets out to discover the truth; along the way he reconnects with hi... Read all Big-city lawyer Hank Palmer returns to his childhood home where his father, the town's judge, is suspected of murder. Hank sets out to discover the truth; along the way he reconnects with his estranged family. Big-city lawyer Hank Palmer returns to his childhood home where his father, the town's judge, is suspected of murder. Hank sets out to discover the truth; along the way he reconnects with his estranged family.

  • David Dobkin
  • Nick Schenk
  • Bill Dubuque
  • Robert Downey Jr.
  • Robert Duvall
  • Vera Farmiga
  • 419 User reviews
  • 285 Critic reviews
  • 48 Metascore
  • 3 wins & 9 nominations total

Trailer #2

  • Hank Palmer

Robert Duvall

  • Joseph Palmer

Vera Farmiga

  • Samantha Powell

Billy Bob Thornton

  • Dwight Dickham

Vincent D'Onofrio

  • Glen Palmer

Jeremy Strong

  • Dale Palmer

Dax Shepard

  • C.P. Kennedy

Leighton Meester

  • Carla Powell

Ken Howard

  • Judge Warren

Emma Tremblay

  • Lauren Palmer

Balthazar Getty

  • Deputy Hanson

David Krumholtz

  • Mike Kattan

Grace Zabriskie

  • Mrs. Blackwell

Denis O'Hare

  • Lisa Palmer

Lonnie Farmer

  • Gus the Bailiff

Matt Riedy

  • Sheriff White

Mark Kiely

  • Mark Blackwell
  • All cast & crew
  • Production, box office & more at IMDbPro

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Due Date

Did you know

  • Trivia Someone rhetorically mentions Atticus Finch, a reference to To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) , which was Robert Duvall 's screen debut, playing Arthur "Boo" Radley.
  • Goofs All Indiana cars in the movie have front license plates, which are not issued in that state.

Hank Palmer : Everyone wants Atticus Finch until there's a dead hooker in a bathtub.

[Note: Atticus Finch is the lawyer in "To Kill a Mockingbird."]

  • Connections Featured in The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon: Robert Downey Jr./Ira Glass/Big & Rich (2014)
  • Soundtracks Well Sweep Out The Ashes (In The Morning) Written by Joyce Allsup Performed by Gram Parsons Courtesy of Reprise Records By arrangement with Warner Music Group Film & TV Licensing

User reviews 419

  • Nov 2, 2014
  • How long is The Judge? Powered by Alexa
  • October 10, 2014 (United States)
  • United States
  • Official Facebook
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  • Ngài Thẩm Phán
  • Plymouth County Courthouse, Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA (Opening Courtroom Scene)
  • Warner Bros.
  • Big Kid Pictures
  • Team Downey
  • See more company credits at IMDbPro
  • $50,000,000 (estimated)
  • $47,119,388
  • $13,116,226
  • Oct 12, 2014
  • $84,419,388

Technical specs

  • Runtime 2 hours 21 minutes
  • Dolby Digital

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Summary Big city lawyer Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) returns to his childhood home where his estranged father, the town’s judge (Robert Duvall), is suspected of murder. He sets out to discover the truth and along the way reconnects with the family he walked away from years before.

Directed By : David Dobkin

Written By : Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque, David Dobkin

Where to Watch

the judge review

Robert Downey Jr.

Hank palmer.

the judge review

Robert Duvall

Joseph palmer.

the judge review

Vera Farmiga

Samantha powell.

the judge review

Billy Bob Thornton

Dwight dickham.

the judge review

Vincent D'Onofrio

Glen palmer.

the judge review

Jeremy Strong

Dale palmer.

the judge review

Dax Shepard

C.p. kennedy.

the judge review

Leighton Meester

Carla powell.

the judge review

Judge Warren

Emma tremblay, lauren palmer.

the judge review

Balthazar Getty

Deputy hanson.

the judge review

David Krumholtz

Mike kattan.

the judge review

Grace Zabriskie

Mrs. blackwell.

the judge review

Denis O'Hare

the judge review

Sarah Lancaster

Lisa palmer, lonnie farmer, gus the bailiff.

the judge review

Sheriff White

Mark blackwell, jeremy holm, catherine cummings, mary palmer, critic reviews.

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Movie Review

Back Home Again, and Little Has Changed

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the judge review

By A.O. Scott

  • Oct. 9, 2014

Early in “The Judge,” Hank Palmer, a hotshot Chicago defense lawyer played by Robert Downey Jr. with his usual fast-talking swagger, learns that his mother has died. He packs a bag, says goodbye to his unfaithful wife and his adorable daughter (Emma Tremblay), and jumps in his Ferrari.

He drives only as far as the airport, however. Even though his Rockwellesque hometown is in Indiana, just one state over, Hank decides to fly rather than drive. Presumably to save time — something this long, baggy, meandering film, directed by David Dobkin from a screenplay by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, otherwise has very little interest in doing.

Once home, Hank rediscovers the family from which he’s been mostly estranged and runs into a few other people too, all of them played by fine actors encouraged to graze in a meadow overgrown with thickets of plot and clumps of easy sentimentality. Hank is the middle brother in a trio, flanked by Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), a high school baseball star settled into middle-aged disappointment, and Dale (Jeremy Strong), who has the kind of mental disability encountered only in movies: He walks around with a Super-8 camera, asking naïve questions that are alternately good for a cute laugh and preternaturally wise. He is less a sibling than a mascot.

The patriarch of the Palmer brood is the title character and the only reason to take an interest in this movie, since he is played by Robert Duvall. Judge Palmer (even his sons call him that) does not represent anything new for Mr. Duvall. He’s crusty, but with an occasional twinkle in his eye and a well-hidden soft spot. He is, more precisely, a collection of personality traits in search of a coherent character, which Mr. Duvall, by dint of sheer professionalism, comes very close to supplying.

What we know about the judge at the outset is that he was a domestic autocrat (a somewhat kinder version of the bad dad from “The Great Santini” ) who doted on his wife and has been sober for nearly three decades. On the bench, he is stern but fair, tempering his reverence for the law with a sense of humor and an occasional display of mercy. He and Hank don’t get along, though the smart money will be on their eventual reconciliation.

The road to that touching, foreordained moment passes through enough dramatic incident for three movies, none of them terribly original. For a while, Hank’s prodigal return is played for gentle, knowing laughs, as a comedy about a city slicker slumming it with the good country folk and rediscovering his roots in the process. He also rediscovers his high school sweetheart, Samantha, played by Vera Farmiga.

And then “The Judge” turns into a crime story, and a supershouty, macho-weepy, buried-family-secrets melodrama. A fellow just out of the penitentiary has died in a hit and run, and his blood turns up on the fender of the old man’s Cadillac. Guess who represents him in the murder trial that unfolds in his very own courtroom? (Actually Hank is the second choice, elbowing aside a local lawyer played by Dax Shepard, who hangs around to provide a touch of bumpkin humor.) The prosecutor is a vulpine outsider (Billy Bob Thornton) who turns out to have a score to settle with Hank.

Who doesn’t? Various secrets come dribbling out — about the paternity of Samantha’s daughter (Leighton Meester), about the car accident that ruined Glen’s baseball career and about the judge himself. They add up to a sprawl of narrative that is as unconvincing as the suspiciously sprawl-free, nostalgia-tinged town where it all takes place.

“The Judge” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Father-son swearing contests.

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Review: The Judge : To Mock a Killing Bird

Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall in The Judge. (Claire Folger—Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

A judge may be deeply suspicious of the defense attorney in his court. One is sworn to dispense justice, the other bent on finding every legal loophole for clients to slip through. Hank (Robert Downey Jr.), a brilliant schemer of a Chicago lawyer, defends the guilty because “Innocent people can’t afford me.” Judge Joseph (Robert Duvall), a veteran judge in rural Indiana, has only contempt for such wily rule-bending. “Imagine a faraway place where your opinion matters,” he tells Hank when the younger man shows up in Joseph’s jurisdiction. “Now go there.”

That Joseph Palmer and Hank Palmer are father and son, and have been estranged for much of their lives, is the first selling point of director David Dobkin’s The Judge , a courtroom drama of antagonistic family values. The second and more pertinent attraction is the pairing of two exemplary actors: Downey, who has holidayed from his early eminence (and notoriety) by playing Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes in a half-dozen fantasy blockbusters, and Duvall, the flinty patriarch of modern American cinema. Downey spits out dialogue at auctioneer speed; Duvall lasers that killer stare, like a male Medusa, or flicks a lizardly smile, which is even more chilling. Their collision-combustion strikes the expected sparks, in a movie that’s not quite worthy of the occasion. Billed as a heavyweight championship bout, The Judge is more a middle-of-the-card time-passer.

Like Ben Affleck’s Nick in Gone Girl , Hank has come home from the big city for his beloved mother’s death. His two brothers — the older, crippled Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and the younger, slow-witted Dale (Jeremy Strong) — greet him warmly. Not so Joseph, whom all his children call Judge, perhaps because he laid down his stern law to them instead of lifting them with his love. An Old Testament type, secure in both his moral righteousness and his judicial rectitude, the Judge lavished affection only on his late wife and his ’71 Coupe de Ville… because, as we know from Gran Torino , The Bucket List and the new St. Vincent , every codger needs a vintage car. Hank can’t stand his dad and has stayed away from him. As he explains to his 10-year-old daughter Lauren (Emma Tremblay): “Grampa Palmer’s dead to me.”

Grampa may be facing death because of a ride he took in his old Caddy. In the screenplay by Nick Schenk (who wrote Gran Torino ) and Bill Dubuque, Joseph becomes a suspect in the hit-and-run demise of one Mark Blackwell (Mark Kiely). Years before, the Judge had given a light sentence to Blackwell, who then committed a particularly heinous murder. The events left a blot of regret on the Judge’s conscience; the dead man left his bloodstains on the fender of that Coupe de Ville.

When arraigned, the Judge hires local doofus lawyer C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard) as his counsel, but to mount a compelling defense against the slick prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) he will require a really clever advocate. Hmmm, who’s available? Maybe his hated son, who’s ready to take the job because, he says, he’s a little light on his pro-bono work this year.

Dramatizing a murder trial in a small town with intertwined guilty secrets, The Judge keeps wandering into territory staked by Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird . There are no racial overtones, since the Palmers live in quite the whitest part of Indiana. But Hank’s mentally challenged brother Dale is an obvious clear avatar of Mockingbird’ s Boo Radley (whom Duvall played in the 1962 movie ). Hank also alludes to Lee’s lawyer hero when he drily notes, “Everybody wants Atticus Finch until there’s a dead hooker in the hot tub.” The blood on the Judge’s car is his dead hooker.

Dobkin, who directed Vince Vaughn’s sharpest comedy of the past decade ( Wedding Crashers ) and his worst ( Fred Claus ), moves to drama with a slower rhythm — The Judge runs, or ambles, at a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes — but the same nudging of the audience: double-takes from the actors, a sudden storm during a big confrontation, the Thomas Newman score that points at the rise of any emotion like a grade-school teacher wielding a yardstick. Clever scenes, like Hank’s psychoanalyzing prospective jurors by asking what messages are on their bumper stickers, alternate with pokey detours. Hank’s old girlfriend Samantha (Vera Farmiga) is still in town… and she has a daughter (Leighton Meester)… who might be Hank’s! Fine, but can we get back to the trial?

The movie also goes heavier on bodily functions than an early John Waters film. In an early scene, Hank accidentally-on-purpose pees on the pants of a rival attorney. C.P., the Judge’s first lawyer, is so nervous as he approaches the courtroom that he vomits every morning. You start to wonder whether Dobkin is going to resurrect the joke about the old man who goes to his doctor. (Doctor tells him, “I’ll need a urine sample, a stool sample and a semen sample.” Old man says, “Here, take my underpants.”) Instead, he turns a moment when Hank intrudes on the Judge’s pathetic incontinence into a strange, strong affirmation of the father-son bond. As the Judge inches toward death, he becomes as helpless as a baby, and Hank is suddenly the parent cleaning up his child’s mess with a combination of duty, embarrassment and love.

Farmiga does small wonders with a thankless character: the wise, weary hometown girl who would be more comfortable in a Larry McMurtry multigenerational saga. Thornton is precise, ruthless and interestingly unknowable in the out-of-town prosecutorial sharpie role taken by George C. Scott in Anatomy of a Murder (a much sturdier small-town courtroom drama). There’s also Grace Zabriskie in the Grace Zabriskie role: the crazy lady she played on Twin Peaks and Big Love .

But you came for Downey and Duvall, and you get a lot of what they’ve got to give. Amazing that Duvall was in his forties when he first played lawyer Tom Hagen — and that first Godfather movie was more than 40 years ago. At 83, he’s old enough for false teeth, but he’s still got his chops; the Judge needs just a single bite to leave wounds on his ambitious son’s ego.

Downey, 49, might consider Hank pro-bono work between headlining in his big franchises, even though those movies flatter his strength of lending a comic touch to overbearing geniuses. His character in The Judge — as in The Soloist and Due Date , Downey’s only two other non-action-film leading roles of the last six years — has affinities to Stark and Sherlock: he’s a bright, tense guy whom the plot compels to come to the aid of people he might otherwise despise. The odd thing is that, these days, this accomplished, serious actor looks more comfortable in fantasy roles. He does fine as Hank when ladling out the spit and sarcasm. But in the quieter moments, he’s sometimes like a race car being gunned in neutral. He’s never Acting so much as when he’s Being Human.

Touching on home truths about justice and the law, aging parents and their balky children, The Judge launches enough emotional pyrotechnics to satisfy most audiences. They may overpraise it because it reminds them of older, better movies. Wouldn’t it be lovely to see a modern version of Mockingbird or Anatomy of a Murder ? Even the update of a solid John Grisham suspenser like The Client , A Time to Kill or The Rainmaker ?

It’s tempting to lay the tissue of a cherished old movie on a new film of similar intent and, our vision clouded by nostalgia for a favorite genre, see its retro appeal. Years from now, we may even apply that retro glow to this movie. We’ll think of its upmarket stars and honorable ambitions and wonder, “Why don’t they make movies like The Judge any more?”

The answer: They do, but on TV network law shows.

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the judge review

the judge review

Film Review: ‘The Judge’

Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall make a memorable duo in this uneven but entertaining dysfunctional-family legal drama.

By Justin Chang

Justin Chang

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The Judge Toronto Film Festival

Gavels are slammed, tempers are lost and bowels are evacuated with great force in David Dobkin ‘s “ The Judge ,” an engrossing, unwieldy hurricane of a movie that plays like a small-town courtroom thriller by way of a testosterone-fueled remake of “August: Osage County.” Some elements ring truer than others in this ambitious blend of dysfunctional-family melodrama and legal procedural, but all of them are just about held together by the ferocious onscreen chemistry between two Roberts (Duvall and Downey Jr.), playing an overbearing father and a black-sheep son who find their already tense relationship literally put on trial. Refreshing as it is to see Downey step out of the Iron Man suit for a spell, the jury’s still out on whether an impressive talent roster can draw enough grown-up eyeballs to this overlong, resolutely old-fashioned male weepie, set for release Oct. 10 by Warner Bros.

For all the creakily elaborate Tennessee Williams-meets-John Grisham machinations cooked up by screenwriters Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque (working from a story by Dobkin and Schenk), “The Judge” pivots on a simple yet inspired stroke of casting, pitting Duvall’s iconic gravitas against Downey’s razor-sharp wit, and then supplying no shortage of opportunities for both men to chew the scenery. Given that their characters are members of a legal profession that invites all manner of verbal pyrotechnics and rhetorical showmanship, the actors are all too happy to oblige.

A brilliant, unscrupulous Chicago defense attorney who excels at getting white-collar criminals off the hook, Hank Palmer (Downey) is preparing to end his marriage and sue for custody of his 7-year-old daughter, Lauren (Emma Tremblay), when he receives news of his mother’s passing. Reluctantly he heads home to Carlinville, the sleepy Indiana town he swore he’d never return to after falling out years ago with his dad, Judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall), an irascible old coot and pillar of moral rectitude who couldn’t be more disapproving of his son the slick big-city operator.

Absence has not made either man’s heart grow fonder, and the tensions are laid on so thickly right at the outset  — lawyer vs. judge, town vs. country, etc. — that viewers may feel ready to strap themselves in for a two-hour-plus marathon of familial misery. Yet Dobkin steers us entertainingly enough through the Palmers’ past resentments and present recriminations, and the script is quite effective at summing up years of embittered history with a single cutting exchange. Joseph’s grieving-widower status doesn’t stop him from seizing every opportunity to remind Hank what a disappointment he is, especially compared with his reliable older brother, family man Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), and his mentally challenged younger brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong), a regrettable Boo Radley stereotype who wanders around filming everyone with an old movie camera.

The presence of D’Onofrio in the cast provides an early tipoff that things are about to veer into “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” territory. Just when it seems Hank is ready to leave Carlinville for good, Joseph gets arrested and charged with a hit-and-run murder — an allegation that becomes even more serious when it turns out the victim is Mark Blackwell (Mark Kiely), a criminal lowlife whom the judge had particular reason to loathe. Joseph, a self-described “recovered alcoholic,” claims to have no memory of the night Blackwell was killed, and Hank, knowing his father will need the best defense possible, decides to stick around. But Joseph scorns the tricks of Hank’s trade and instead retains the services of an ineffectual local attorney (a bumbling Dax Shepard), convinced that the truth will prevail on its own — even when notoriously tough prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) is brought in to try the case against him.

Much of the pleasure of “The Judge” derives from the way Joseph and Hank clash over the proper way to handle their defense, carefully negotiating the thorny legal and moral ramifications of the case, then weighing them against their own difficult history and the sad fate that could await Joseph in the few years (maybe months) he has left. And the two leads superbly convey the complicated dynamic of a father and son who, for all their differences, are united by their colossal stubbornness, fierce intelligence and unwillingness to suffer fools gladly.

Neither actor is really attempting a change of pace here, and the material plays to their strengths and distinct personas at every turn — whether it’s Duvall laying down the law, so to speak, or Downey letting loose with a withering takedown of Carlinville’s white-trash population. That makes it all the more affecting on those rare occasions when Joseph and Hank achieve an honest moment of emotional connection, informed by their dawning awareness of the indignities of old age and the inevitability of death. Duvall’s performance, his most memorable in some time, carries unmistakable echoes of the many broken-down, hard-drinking, hermit-like men he’s played in movies past, yet never before has the 83-year-old actor rendered so painfully honest a portrait of a man whose body and mind are slowly failing him.

In an ambitious departure from such aggressively raunchy studio comedies as “Wedding Crashers” and “The Change-Up” (although like that film, “The Judge” does feature a memorable excrement explosion), Dobkin displays a nice sense of dramatic modulation here, informed by a keen understanding of the way family tensions tend to gather, erupt and then dissipate. Still, the director tends to overplay his hand whenever a heated confrontation comes along, whether it’s an over-studied image of father and son going their separate ways across an open field, or an argument whose melodramatic intensity is matched only by the gale-force winds outside their window.

Once the final verdicts are rendered and the consequences are doled out, the film goes regrettably soft as it seeks to tie up the various loose ends, in the process bringing Joseph and Hank’s relationship to the most sentimental conclusion imaginable. Still, better all this father-son Sturm und Drang than a forgettable subplot involving Hank’s attempts to rekindle an old flame (Vera Farmiga) and his brief flirtation with a sexy young bartender (Leighton Meester) who’s studying law. Along with Hank’s cheatin’ wife (a blink-and-you-miss-it performance by Sarah Lancaster), that’s about as rich and complex as the female roles get  — not a huge surprise for this simmering cauldron of wounded male egos and latent daddy issues, but a disappointment nonetheless.

D’Onofrio adds a welcome voice of sanity as the most likable and long-suffering of the three Palmer brothers, while Thornton, acting for the umpteenth time opposite Duvall (whom he directed in “Sling Blade” and “Jayne Mansfield’s Car”), makes Dickham a wily and formidable opponent without turning him into an exaggerated villain. Elsewhere, the always underexposed Grace Zabriskie is aces in a small but vivid role as the hit-and-run victim’s enraged mother.

Fitting Dobkin’s heightened ambitions, the technical contributions are considerably more accomplished than in the director’s prior efforts. Janusz Kaminski’s 35mm cinematography lends a depth of polish to the picture, lensed primarily in the historic Massachusetts village of Shelburne Falls, whose waterfalls provide lovely background distraction at certain moments. Thomas Newman’s score manages, not without strain, to accommodate the film’s gradual shift from glib comedy to brooding dramatics.

Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, Calif., Aug. 27, 2014. (In Toronto Film Festival — Gala Presentations, opener.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 141 MIN.

  • Production: A Warner Bros. release presented in association with Village Roadshow Pictures and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment of a Big Kid Pictures/Team Downey production. Produced by Susan Downey, David Dobkin, David Gambino. Executive producers, Bruce Berman, Steven Mnucin, Herbert W. Gains, Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Kleeman.
  • Crew: Directed by David Dobkin. Screenplay, Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque; story, Dobkin, Schenk. Camera (Technicolor, 35mm/16mm, widescreen), Janusz Kaminski; editor, Mark Livolsi; music, Thomas Newman; production designer, Mark Ricker; costume designer, Marlene Stewart; sound (Dolby Digital/Datasat), Mark Ulano; sound designer/supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Tim Chau; special effects supervisor, Shane Gross; visual effects supervisor, Jim Rider; visual effects producer, Wendy Garfinkle; visual effects, Method Studios; stunt coordinator, Steven Ritzi; associate producer, Greg Garthe; assistant director, Mark Cotone; casting, Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee.
  • With: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, Billy Bob Thornton, Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Grace Zabriskie, Sarah Lancaster, Mark Kiely.

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The Judge Is a Legal Thriller With No Drive or Urgency

Portrait of David Edelstein

In The Judge , a legal drama that builds to the requisite Hollywood Dark Night of the Soul, Robert Downey Jr. has a role so far inside his comfort zone that the movie has no drive, no urgency. You know what the character is; you know where he’s going. Downey plays Hank Palmer, an amoral, hugely successful defense attorney whose clients are all scumbags, because, he tells an indignant prosecutor, “Innocent people can’t afford me” (a great line, admittedly). He and his wife are divorcing because she had an affair when he wasn’t there for her and their daughter, because he only cares about winning because he had a traumatic childhood, etc. Then, on cue comes a turn that forces him to face his past and question his own integrity — to judge himself. His mom dies and he returns to his New England hometown, his two damaged brothers, and his estranged father (Robert Duvall), an esteemed judge who belittles what Hank does. When the judge is accused of a hit-and-run murder and the attorney is plainly incompetent, guess who feels compelled to take the case?

This is not by any means a bad movie. The script has its bright patches, the setting is picturesque, and the cast is full of actors you’ll want to see. The resolution of the murder case is unexpected (the victim was a murderous piece of trash), though it doesn’t upend the basic cornball formula. (Hydrangeas represent purity.) But the film is nearly two and a half hours, and director David Dobkin doesn’t rise above the level of a proficient TV hack. (Dobkin’s forte is comedy.) The biggest surprise is how few sparks pass between the two first-rate stars. Duvall’s role keeps him shut down, mulishy passive, and he and Downey don’t act as if they share a bloodline or fraught past. The younger actor seems suitably awed by his venerable co-star, but there’s no echo of Duvall’s craggy plainness or his sharp, avian profile in Downey’s bright-eyed glibness.

The other actors give solid, fat-paycheck performances — the sort that enable them to do projects they care about. Vera Farmiga has a salty waitress turn as the gal Hank bailed on (they don’t match up, either), Vincent D’Onofrio is the older brother whose baseball career Hank played a role in ruining, and Jeremy Strong wanders in and out of the action as the addled younger brother whose incessant videotaping of events looks to be a factor in the climax. (It isn’t, but it factors into the dark corners of the family’s past.) The showoff supporting performance is Billy Bob Thornton’s, as the prosecutor who comes from the big city, largely to humiliate Hank. Thornton is sleek and beady-eyed, his white hair swept back, his demeanor brrrrry cold. The character is more complex than he first appears, but for most of the film, he’s used as a slick villain to raise your blood pressure.

The thing to hang onto in The Judge is that small towns represent upright American values and that cities are where you go to toss away your moral compass. Also, that Robert Downey Jr. likes to play slippery hipsters who realize the full extent of their aloneness and resolve to slip no more. If he isn’t on some basic level boring the hell out of himself, he’s not the actor I think he is.

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