“The Judge” dawdles, lingers, takes sidebars and recesses – much like a celebrity trial in which TV cameras have been allowed into the courtroom.
A bloated all-star melodrama with none of the lean, mean legalese of a John Grisham adaptation, it’s a showboat’s movie cast with a lot of actors each promised “a big, cool scene.” And when those scenes of love, family, sex, illness and autism, small town life and courtroom confrontation show up, Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton and Vincent D’Onofrio swing for the fences.
The trouble with that is, the script has shortened these fences to Little League range.
Downey stars as Hank Palmer, hot-shot Chicago attorney to the rich and infamous. He’s “not encumbered” by the limitations of truth, honor or reputation, he admits. Which is one big reason he’s estranged from his father, a legendary small-town Indiana judge.
But when mom dies, Hank has to fly home. His little girl (Emma Tremblay, all pasted-on perkiness) wonders if grandpa’s dead, too.
“Grandpa Palmer’s dead to ME,” Hank riffs. That’s how Downey plays things these days, his antic banter has become a trademark, like Jimmy Stewart or Jack Lemon’s stammering, like Will Smith’s “Oh HELL no.” It’s a crutch.
Watch him trot it out when he reunites with his Carlinville, Indiana, brothers. Autistic Dale (Jeremy Strong) and ex-jock Glen (D’Onofrio) need reminding that their ogre of an old man threw things at them.
“But he threw things at us to get our attention, NOT to draw blood,” Glen jokes. And rationalizes.
Hank cannot reconnect with the harsh, self-righteous judge (Duvall). And then the old man, who has grown forgetful, is accused of killing somebody with his car. He needs the ethically suspect wiseacre to remind him that if “you don’t talk, you walk.” Because grumpy dad is determined to use a local rube who moonlights as an antiques dealer (a goofy Dax Shepard) as his lawyer.
The case gives Hank the excuse to recall the charms of the redneck but picturesque mill town where he grew up, the ill-tempered locals (watch him mockingly size up a mob, “Sherlock Holmes” fashion) and the girl he left behind.
Vera Farmiga plays the shapely, country gal old flame. Leighton Meester is her hot-to-trot grown daughter. Yeah, they’re both eyeing the rich out-of-town attorney.
The story lurches from awkward yet funny seductions to autistic guy jokes, into death and divorce, disease, the indignities of old age and shattered dreams. Big secrets are suggested and revealed. Almost everybody has one.
The great Janusz Kaminski (“Saving Private Ryan”) photographed this, and it is simply – one immaculately framed composition after another. Even the home movie footage flashbacks (Autistic Dale hides behind an old 8 millimeter silent home movie camera) are beautiful.
And some of the scenes have spark. But it’s always a showy sort of spark. Billy Bob Thornton plays a lean, feral prosecutor brought in to bring down the city slicker. Naturally, the movie makes a big deal out of his fancy folding chrome water cup. Downey is always engaging, even when he’s trying too hard. Duvall still has that “Great Santini” tantrum-tosser in him, and D’Onofrio and Farmiga are reliably real.
But the script wastes a lot of our time. There’s zero tension to the courtroom scenes and a weird illogic hanging over every abrupt lurch in tone or character behavior. Hank left 20 years ago but graduated from high school in 1989. Downey and Farmiga are plainly in their mid-40s, D’Onofrio even older. That chronology doesn’t work in the movie for reasons that will be obvious if you see it.
Director David Dobkin (“The Change-Up”) is plainly more at home with the funny stuff, as are his under-credentialed screenwriters. If they’d edited the movie that way, the dramatic failings wouldn’t have stood out so much.
As it is, this “celebrity trial” of a movie so overstays its welcome that nobody will care about the verdict when the jury renders one on “The Judge.”
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