Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall combine forces for an estranged father/son bonding story that doubles as a courtroom drama. In other words, the movie is practically designed to win golden awards statues. Thankfully, it’s an entirely watchable at that.
Downey stars as the type of slick, morally questionable, fast-talking lawyer very much in the Robert Downey, Jr. mold. He’s made roughly a bazillion dollars from his job, but he’s also a renowned schmuck and is just about to go through a divorce with an inevitably ugly custody battle. At that exact moment (with his soul on the line), he learns that his mother died, forcing him to go home for the first time in 20 years. He’s from a small town where his father was the judge and, therefore, the most respected figure of the community. However, the two never got along. They awkwardly shake hands at the funeral without much conversation, giving Downey the chance to bond with his one-time potential baseball star older brother (Vincent D’Onofrio), his mentally challenged younger brother (Jeremy Strong), and his abandoned high school girlfriend (Vera Farmiga). It’s an awkward reunion, but a fairly uneventful one. That is, until the next day when it’s learned that Duvall ran over someone with his car the night before – someone he let off too easy many years ago, leading to a murder. Duvall claims to remember nothing, but he’s has motive for wanting the man dead. So, there will be a trial. Downey will defend, and who else could be the prosecutor but Billy Bob Thornton?
‘The Judge’ is one of those sentimental all-star Oscar dramas that tend to overwhelm screens this time of year. It’s constructed for maximum emotional impact with a variety of ludicrous scenes designed purely to give movie stars Oscar speeches and sell millions of hankies. The film has many scenes and sequences that are easily torn apart and many more that are comprised entirely of clichés.
Yet, somehow it works. Why? Well, two reasons. The first is the cast, who are all far too talented for this material and elevate every single role (particularly Downey, who carries at least 75% of the movie on his charisma and comedy alone, something of a specialty for him at this point). The other major reason for the film’s relative success is director David Dobkin, who’s frequently able to get away with cheeseball fluff by lacing it with unexpected bursts of sardonic humor.
Is ‘The Judge’ a great movie? Absolutely not, but as far as pandering Oscar dramas go, it’s pretty painless.