The Judge is overruled and over-burdened by soap-opera circumstance

by Mark Burger

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, a concept that the makers of The Judge would have been well to follow.

Instead, this star-studded but top-heavy courtroom drama overstates and over-complicates its case with too much melodramatic baggage, so much so that the initial dramatic thrust is compromised and dampened. The film is very long (140 minutes) but certainly didn’t need to be.

Robert Downey Jr. stars as Hank Palmer, a hotshot Chicago lawyer who returns “” not unlike the prodigal son “” to his childhood home in Indiana upon learning of his mother’s death. The town where he grew up, and where his family still resides, is bucolic in the Norman Rockwell extreme, further emphasized in Thomas Newman’s maudlin score.

Hank remains following the funeral when his father, Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), is implicated in a fatal hit-and-run accident during his visit. Joseph is the town’s resident judge and one of its most respected citizens, and his strict law-and-order style continued at home. Even his children call him “Judge.” But now, he’s on the other side of the courtroom “” he’s the accused. Guess who’s going to wind up defending him?

The family tragedy, the legal dilemma, Joseph’s health concerns, and the unending smorgasbord of family grudges that are regurgitated again and again are simply too much for any one film to handle. At least they are for this one. Characters don’t just air their grievances, they find new grievances that must be aired out. As this occurs, again and again, The Judge loses all traction and ultimately drags itself to its (rather inevitable) conclusion, out of breath and out of energy. What initially seems like a legal thriller in the John Grisham/Michael Connelly vein suddenly turns into a big-screen soap opera.

A talented cast does what it can, with nearly every actor getting a chance to emote “” whether necessary or not. Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong play Hank’s brothers, the former a once-promising baseball player whose career was cut short by a car accident (guess who was driving?) and the latter mentally challenged and obsessed with his homemovie camera. Vera Farmiga, proudly sporting an arm tattoo, plays Hank’s ex-girlfriend, a formula character that could have easily been excised entirely from the proceedings. It’s not that Farmiga gives a bad performance, it’s that her character is simply a device to give Downey a pseudo-love interest.

Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, Ken Howard, Balthazar Getty, Grace Zabriskie, Denis O’Hare and David Krumholtz also turn up, as does a silver-haired, silver-tongued Billy Bob Thornton as the prosecutor. The film gets so bogged down with its other, peripheral concerns that Thornton winds up having almost nothing to do, though he does get some nifty close-ups illuminated by sunlight through the courtroom windows.

The Judge has something of the air of a vanity project; Downey is also an executive producer and his wife Susan is credited as one of the producers. It’s clearly an attempt to showcase Downey’s dramatic abilities after having saved the world (and earned superstar status) in Marvel’s Iron Man/Avengers blockbusters. Downey does enjoy some crackling exchanges with Duvall and some nice moments with young daughter Emma Tremblay (nicely holding her own), and he also gets to display his impish, flippant charm even while savoring his character’s initial arrogance.

But it’s never in doubt that Hank Palmer will be a changed man at the end “” for the better, of course. For one thing, he stops urinating on opposing counsel’s trousers at men’s room urinals in the courthouse. That counts for something. !

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