The Judge (2014)
The Judge (2014)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 21 min.

Release Date: October 10th, 2014 MPAA Rating: R

Director: David Dobkin Actors: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester




otshot Illinois lawyer Henry “Hank” Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is assured, sarcastic, and completely insensitive – a character Downey Jr. has had plenty of experience portraying. “Innocent people can’t afford me,” he insists, possessing absolutely no qualms about liberating corrupt, law breaking citizens. Just as he’s about to aid in a clearly guilty client’s indemnification, Hank receives a phone call that secures him a continuance: his mother has passed away.

Forced to return to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana, a city where nothing ever changes, Hank meets up with his moderately alienated brothers and his completely estranged father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) – who barely makes eye contact with his distant son. The stern, decades-serving adjudicator firmly believes in his moral and ethical superiority; but that conviction is put to the test when he’s accused of the first degree murder of Marcus Blackwell, a recently released killer previously sentenced to a 20 year bid by none other than Judge Palmer. With substantial evidence and a claimed lapse of memory during the alleged incident (a car accident), the elderly judge reluctantly relies on Hank to defend him in a case that could shatter his legacy and see him incarcerated for life.

The film isn’t really about the trial. Instead, it’s a story of a painful past, old wounds, and the potential for redemption and reconciliation. Flashbacks of a happy childhood are envisaged to coax the audience into caring about a bitter old man who doesn’t want help from his long-since-vindicated son, and who certainly doesn’t deserve the attention. Hank himself isn’t a signally likeable character, but as everything goes wrong in his life (other than his vast wealth), starting with the revealing of a looming divorce, possible separation from his impossibly cute daughter (Emma Tremblay), and the death of his mother, he becomes the underdog to side with.

The supporting cast is a stellar assemblage of notable character actors, each offering a level of entertainment to compensate for lingering moments of overly sentimental reminiscence. Vera Farmiga is the former flame, still harboring feelings of love and resentment for being left behind, while Leighton Meester is the seductive adult daughter; Billy Bob Thornton is the slick, seasoned prosecutor out to ensure justice; Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong are the Palmer brothers, one a man living out a life of tragically lost athletic capability, the other a well-intentioned but mentally deficient, novice photographer, respectively; and Dax Shepard is the hopelessly inexperienced defense attorney destined to lose the case unless succored by someone who knows how to craftily manipulate the law. These roles alternate between comic relief and sources of extra familial drama (a clan likened to a Picasso painting), highlighted by a farcical jury selection process and occasional opportunities for moving remembrances. But with an overlong running time, the less affecting moments laboriously weigh down the pacing.

The dialogue is awash with glib remarks and biting cynicism, making the picture strangely resemble the recent comedy “This Is Where I Leave You,” which contained numerous coincidental similarities, including the death of a parent, a return to a small hometown, a reunion with a former lover, the correction of disaffection, the trading of stories of yore, and the revival of an unpleasant past. Although it spruces up plodding scenes of routines and unexceptional happenings, the discourse also frequently intrudes on serious settings to further distance the premise from the momentary glimpses of greatness that recall “Anatomy of a Murder,” “The Verdict,” or “…And Justice for All.” It’s a film of performances, not story, which always favors melodrama over thrills and tearful contemplation over taut courtroom battles.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10