Hank Palmer is an unscrupulous hotshot lawyer who revels in only defending rich, guilty clients. Estranged from his wife and about to enter into a custody battle for his young daughter, he is dealt another blow when he discovers his mother has died. He treks back to his home town in Indiana for the funeral for a flying visit, but when his father Joseph runs down and kills a man in his car, Hank becomes embroiled in the defence in a case where mounting evidence of malice aforethought and his own personal demons threaten total defeat.
It's a good setup, if not an unfamiliar one- it's On Golden Pond by way of Doc Hollywood and its thematic daddy issues have long since been played out in the male-dominated Hollywood industry. As with many of these Oscar bait movies, the performances are routinely excellent- the acting categories are amongst the biggest and these films are always eager to give actors a shot at showcasing their best work. So just as anyone could predict, the pairing of Downey and Duvall as father and son is utterly compelling in its volatile chemistry.
There's more than enough meat there for a solid courtroom drama with a strong through-line about family. But courtroom dramas are weirdly like musicals- they have the same necessity for a long running time because, as with musical numbers, it takes more time to tell a story during a trial, with all of the lengthy dialogue and cross-examination that it entails. So there's no need for padding, and the unnecessary padding is where the film starts to come undone.
For starters, dealing with male issues as it does, it's got an intellectual macho-ness to it that doesn't really extend to a more enlightened view of Vera Farmiga's old flame and Leighton Meester as a character who may or may not be Hank's daughter. The resolution of that sub-plot is so mishandled, you almost expect to see Downey left hanging as he awaits a high five at the end of it. This is to say nothing of Jeremy Strong as Hank's younger brother Dale. Strong does fine with a difficult role, but his character is utterly redundant to a plot with more than enough complications and his presence in the script seems counter to Downey's character's own advice about Oscar baiting in Tropic Thunder.
Downey played a big part in getting this made, hyping it up as one of the best scripts he's ever read, but Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque seem to veer well away from their killer central premise and David Dobkin (better known for similarly indulgent films like Wedding Crashers and The Change-Up) has a very slack grip on the helm. And so, as with many of these slightly off, would-be awards contenders, the performances are the most worthy aspect.
The Judge is now showing at cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen The Judge, why not share your comments below? I will concede that it has an Oscar-worthy tagline- "Defend Your Honour."
I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.