Mike Kattan: The jaded lawyer with no regard for the law, that’s original.
First, I will just say that I am quite surprised that Robert Downey Jr. read the script for THE JUDGE and somehow saw the potential for awards glory in it. Between this and his last disappointing prestige project, THE SOLOIST, he is going to have to look harder to find his way to the podium. THE SOLOIST, as manipulative as it was, still had its moments though. THE JUDGE, however, piles one cliché on top of another for maximum dramatic effect, without realizing just how transparent it’s being. This is of course not Downey Jr.’s fault; no this blame lies solely on director, David Dobkin (THE CHANGE-UP), who should stick to comedy, at least until he masters that genre first.
THE JUDGE introduces us to our hero, Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.) at a urinal, almost as if to warn us that we are about to be peed upon for two long hours. Hank is a big city lawyer who only defends the guilty (as they are the only people who can afford him). It turns out that this particular lawyer left his small backwards town years earlier in pursuit of success, and naturally to prove to his daddy (Robert Duvall), who happens to be that small town’s stalwart judge, that he could be a big shot one day. Now, that doesn’t sound tired or forced, does it? Wait, there’s more. Hank is also in the middle of a pending divorce, which will include a custody fight over his young daughter. With all of this on his plate, his mother dies and he has to go home for the funeral and see the father he vowed was dead to him (literally).
Once home, the judge gets himself into some trouble with the law, and Hank has to stay on to fight for his reluctant father. Leave it to murder charges to bring fathers and sons back together again. Now the perfect opportunity has been manufactured for a father to see that his son isn’t the disappointment he always thought he was, and for a son to see his father as human after all. Without giving anything concrete away, not that you can’t figure out the entire plot pretty easily yourself when watching, but there is even a shot of father and son on a boat fishing with each other at one point. Quintessential or just plain laughable? You decide. What Dobkin clearly doesn’t realize, especially as he is constantly undercutting any tension he manages to build with unnecessary humour, is that this structure doesn’t work because it is far too structured. Every element feels forced and purposeful instead of natural and actually plausible.
And not to let Downey Jr. completely off the hook for this mess; if he wants the awards recognition he no doubt deserves, not only will he need to pick, or have his people pick, better projects than THE JUDGE, but he will also have to push himself past the persona we’ve all come to know and love. Downey Jr. does Downey Jr. very, very well at this point. But can he do more? We will have to wait and judge for ourselves.
How many sheep would you give The Judge?