7/10 – Downey Jr. and Duvall give an acting masterclass in this tense courtroom drama, which could have done with a little less in the mix.
Robert Downey Jr. takes on a different kind of role in The Judge, which sees him playing sharp suited defence attorney Hank Palmer. It’s not a complete about-turn though, and those who enjoy seeing the star deliver zinging one-liners as Tony Stark will be glad to hear a certain amount of the superhero makes it into this film, too.
Hank is a big city hot shot with a reputation for his fearsome cross examination and hulking ego. While he might be feared in the courtroom, things aren’t as good at home. Despite the fleet of mega-bucks cars sitting in the garage of his ultra-modern home – all clean lines and glass panels – Hank’s wife is tired of playing second fiddle to his Blackberry and wants a divorce. Things get even worse when the lawyer is summoned to his childhood home because his mother has died.
Here is where the writers start to chuck everything they have at the script. We have an irascible patriarch in the shape of Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), Hank’s father and the titular judge. There is also older brother Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) whose baseball dream was cruelly snatched away from him, and younger sibling Dale (Jeremy Strong) who has a developmental disability. Add in a sexy barmaid played by Leighton Meester and Hank’s first love Samantha (Vera Farmiga), who clearly has some unfinished business with him, and we’re really rolling. But that’s not all. We also have family health issues, Hank’s young daughter, who has a terrible habit of accidentally hitting the nail right on the head with her questions, and a deep, dark secret which is sure to be revealed.
On top of that, after Joseph went for a drive on the day of his wife’s funeral, his car is found to have been involved in a hit and run. He’s accused of murder, and not just of anyone – the victim is someone who’s been in his courtroom. If only he knew a good defence attorney…
Of course the path of a murder trial will never run smooth in a movie, so Joseph’s intense loathing of his son means he can’t bring himself to ask for help. Dax Shepard offers some light relief in the shape of hapless small town lawyer C.P. Kennedy, eventually leaving the way clear for Hank to go about his business (complete with witty asides and scathing rebuffs). However, when the prosecutor – played with aplomb by Billy Bob Thornton – is revealed to have a personal grudge, it seems it won’t be plain sailing after all.
The Judge may be pegged on a legal drama but at its heart it’s a story about family, particularly the sometimes difficult relationship between fathers and sons. Both Downey Jr. and Duvall give their all to their characters, culminating in a tense courtroom scene. The relentless butting of heads between the two men is fascinating to watch, so it’s a shame that the meandering background plots take away from that a little.
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