Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall star as a broken father/son combo who need to make things right. And with that, we officially enter Oscar season, folks. ‘The Judge’ is a movie made purely and blatantly to win awards and scoop up all the box office dollars that come with them. Thankfully, it’s also an entirely watchable example of the genre just so long as you know what you’re getting into.
Downey stars as a Robert Downey, Jr. style fast-talking lawyer who defends sleazeballs with his witty banter for millions. His career is a raging success, but his personal life is predictably a mess. His marriage is falling apart and his relationship with his daughter is less than ideal. His childhood family is even worse. Then wouldn’t ya know it, his mother dies in the middle of a big case, forcing him to return home to small town America and confront his past.
His father (Duvall) is the local judge and community leader who looks down on his son’s slick ways. His older brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) was a potential baseball star whose career was cut short in high school after a drunk driving accident by Downey. His younger brother (Jeremy Strong) is charmingly mentally challenged. There’s even a girl who got away (Vera Farmiga). This all adds up to a reconciliation family drama, but with a twist. The day after the funeral, Duvall is arrested for driving over a criminal he once let off. Downey is forced to defend his father, and Billy Bob Thornton plays the intimidating prosecutor (because why not?). Cue bonding, laughter, tears, big actorly speeches, and 2.5 hours later: credits.
The movie a big ol’ slice of Oscar bait featuring star actors in roles filled with speeches designed for awards clips. The premise allows for harsh truths to be squeaked out in a cuddly manner. It’s exactly the type of manipulative nonsense you’d expect, yet it kind of works thanks mostly to one man – Robert Downey Jr. Presumably the role was written for him and then a little improv brought it home. The actor carries the entire movie through his sheer talent and charisma. He makes even the cheesiest of melodramatic scenes credible through sly humor and/or sheer commitment. Whenever he’s off screen, things tend to fall apart. So he’s on screen at least 90% of the time.
Duvall of course helps out quite a bit by delivering one of his definitive grumpy old man performances that offers an immovable object to Downey’s unstoppable force. D’Onofrio, Thornton and Farmiga all chip in their acting chops as well, and together they make the script far more watchable than it needed to be.
Director David Dobkin’s presence doesn’t hurt either. He came out of 1990s quirky indies before settling into a career as a studio gun-for-hire somewhere around ‘Wedding Crashers’. Dobkin enjoys playing around with the film’s snidely comedic and sincerely melodramatic tone, and delivers a movie far funnier than it has any right to be and just as corny as it needs to be. There are times when the manipulative dramatics go too far (pretty much anything involving the mentally challenged brother and the climatic courtroom interrogation can be a rough watch), but for the most part, the balance feels right.
There’s nothing original about the ‘The Judge’, but fortunately for all involved it’s not the type of movie that needs originality. This is the sort of safely weighty fall awards contender that audiences who don’t enjoy being challenged can attend and feel like they’ve seen something meaningful because it has all the right emotional cues. The film achieves those small goals in entertaining ways thanks to actors who know how to elevate tired material. It’s nothing special, but at least Downey tosses in enough flippant swagger to keep the clichés from becoming nauseating. With these sorts of movies, that’s really all you can ask for. ‘The Judge’ is a mild success that at least won’t disappoint viewers this fall until it’s inevitably forgotten by early 2015.