What happens if you take My Cousin Vinny and Doc Hollywood – combine them, take the humor and charm out of them, and throw in a dash of August: Osage County? Well, you get the 2 hour and 20 minute mess that is The Judge.
I’m sure the filmmakers have other ideas, though. This is clearly Oscar-bait, as you have two of the best actors in the business, playing nicely off each other. Yet even as good as the two Roberts are – Duvall and Downey – the dialogue is bad and the movie so preposterous, it’s doubtful this film will get a single nomination.
Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a jerk. He’s a big city lawyer, who doesn’t mind urinating on the prosecutors in the bathroom (Nicholson did that so much better to James Spader in Wolf), or talking about how his hot wife has “an ass like a volleyball,” just to get under your skin. He defends guilty clients, which in movies is always a goofy way to make us hate these lawyers. Yet Hank returns to his small hick town for his mom’s funeral. We find out his dad, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) hates him. We’re not really sure why at first, but it’s soon revealed that he was a reckless teenager, and one of the things he did was cause a car accident that derailed his brother’s (Vincent D’Onofro) promising baseball career.
The plot thickens when Judge Palmer is accused in a hit-and-run case, killing the town scumbag. He wants a local attorney (Dax Shepard) to represent him, but Hank realizes this would be a disaster. Shepard doesn’t even know when to object to things he should. He’s also over matched, as the prosecutor has brought in a big, bad attorney. We know he’s bad news because he has a metal, collapsible cup that makes weird sound effects when it’s open and closed (my date leaned in and said, “What’s the deal with the cup?”). We also realize this lawyer is bad news because he’s played by Billy Bob Thornton. Oh, and if this list of actors isn’t enough to impress you yet, we get Vera Farmiga as the old flame that got away. Well, he’s the one that got away. He went to the bright lights of the big city, while she stayed in the small town serving coffee to the locals.
It’s not that I’ve seen so many movies. There’s an incest joke that’s right of a movie Robert Downey Jr. film Soapdish in 1990. There are so many courtroom pictures that have touched on the themes this movie tackles. There are also so many movies where Duvall has played the grouchy old man, and more where Downey plays the arrogant pr**k.
No, those aren’t my complaints. It’s the fact that this movie is entertaining enough in scenes, but it tries so hard at plucking your heart strings with maudlin melodrama. There’s also an overbearing score. These filmmakers would’ve had a hit movie if this were 1987.
The clunky dialogue doesn’t help matters, which is a shame, because the story is actually interesting. The reasons the father/son dislike each other, and when we find out what really happened with Judge Palmers case. Yet the impressive cast often lacks chemistry with each other and the movie ultimately doesn’t work, despite the fact that you’re never bored watching it. I don’t even mind that the movie started edgy, and turned sappy. There’s nothing wrong with an unlikable character redeeming himself, yet it should be more subtle. I liked how Tom Cruise pulled it off in Rainman, yet it was Dustin Hoffman that got the Oscar for that. In this, nobody should get an Oscar nod. Farmiga is the best thing in it, but her character is underwritten.
Another frustrating thing is how unrealistic it all is. We have to believe that Judge Palmer presided over a case with his son as a defendant. We have to believe that Dax Shepard is a lawyer that doesn’t know a single thing about the law, just because he’s in a small town and his other job is buying antiques.
We have to believe that a judge in a court case is going to let father and son yell at each other and hash out old problems and give the audience expository dialogue. In reality, the prosecutor would’ve said “objection” about 10 times, and the judge presiding over this case would’ve slammed his gavel, and told them to take their daddy issues to a psychiatrist, not to debate it in his courtroom. Instead we hear the musical score telling us just how to feel as this is all unfolding.
And I won’t even get started on the brother Hank has that’s slow. It’s flawed for so many reasons but I’ve gotten tired of even complaining about this movie at this point.
If you want to see Robert Downey, Jr. play a lawyer in a good film, find the James Woods movie True Believer (from 1989). If you want to be annoyed by Billy Bob Thornton’s face – you have a number of films to choose from. None of them will give you a cool, stainless steel collapsible cup, though.
This was a great story, well-shot, but ruined by the dialogue and poor direction, courtesy of David Dobkin. He also directed Mr. Woodcock, Fred Clause, and Change-Up. Maybe he shouldn’t have tried to change-up and do drama.
It gets 2 stars out of 5.
Note: The audience, including my date, liked it. I think most people will, despite all the flaws I had with the film.