In The Judge, Robert Downey Jr. stars as big city lawyer Hank Palmer, who 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.
At its best, The Judge offers a touching, verging on heartbreaking look at the relationship between adult children and their aging parents. In one poignant scene, Hank helps his father Joseph, who has secretly been undergoing chemotherapy for late-stage cancer, as the older man loses control of his bowels. It’s a scene that’s played straight – no pulling away to hint at what’s going on, just Downey and Duvall playing the scene with a mix of embarrassment and surprise that one might expect from a parent and child in a similar situation.
It’s a rare moment that registers in a film that otherwise shirks subtlety in favor of a bloated runtime stuffed with melodramatics. While other characters float around in the periphery, The Judge is, for most of its running time, about a father and son whose tendencies toward being raging sociopaths to each other and those around them might be more interesting if the film wasn’t also working to make Joseph a misunderstood figure.
Of course, Downey does well at playing a sociopath, and Duvall is still a tremendous actor, so at least there’s a certain spark that exists whenever the two duke it out. Other characters barely get a moment to be fleshed out. Take Dwight Dickham, the prosecutor played by Billy Bob Thornton. Thornton knows how to play a prick, but the character here is so underdeveloped that the only reason we know he has some incentive to prosecute Joseph is because he tells Hank. There’s nothing to show his vindictiveness. Or take Vera Farmiga as Samantha, Hank’s old flame. Her subplot and character could easily be lifted from the film, and it wouldn’t effect anything else. It would also, hopefully, lift out a particular subplot that may be one of the ickiest sexual setups that’s been in a mainstream film in years.
Not even the rest of the Palmer family gets much of a chance to help flesh out the family dynamics. Older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) is trotted out to show an example of Hank’s reckless youth. Worse, younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong) is given an unspecified mental health issue that’s more often than not played for laughs.
It’s a shame. With a cast this strong, one would hope they would all be used to full effect. Instead, Downey and Duvall get to do their best with a drawn-out script while the rest of the cast works to elevate the small amount of poorly-drafted material they’ve been given. There’s potential here for a better, tighter film. It’s a shame that the final product turned out as poorly as it did.