Early on in “The Judge,” Robert Downey Jr.'s slick Chicago lawyer sighs, crosses a bridge to Nowheresville, Indiana and braces himself saying something on the order of, “okay, let's do this.” I knew exactly how he felt.
It is evident from the first scene in David Dobkin's “The Judge” that this is going to be a big movie with big performances about big feelings. There are moments that have all the grace and subtlety of housebreaking a dog – Dobkin rubs your face in his emotional mess, ensuring that he gets his point across. Watching home movies of happier times shot by your innocent (and vaguely-defined mentally challenged) younger brother as Bon Iver's “Holocene” goons on the soundtrack? On clackety Super 8 mm no less? I can think of no more contrived moment in a movie this year. “Expendables 3” has fewer nauseating clichés than “The Judge.”
Downey's character, whom we'll call Tony Stark, Esq., is a big jerk, but that's only because his father was a big jerk. His father, the Judge (Robert Duvall), is really into playing by the rules, and is a respected member of his small community. But the night after his loving wife passes away he gets into an accident, killing an evil town creep who represents his career's worst disgrace. Was this this vehicular manslaughter with intent, or was the old man so stricken with grief that he didn't know what he was doing? And why does the Judge not remember anything from that night?
I can assure you that the answers to these question are entirely disinteresting, as is most everything else in this picture. But it is not wholly without merit. There's a certain schadenfreude to watching a movie where a storm brews in the distance, knowing that no hackneyed visual metaphor will go to waste. Indeed, père et fils end up standing in the middle of a tornado, screaming their thoughts at one another, artlessly slipping in backstory along the way.
When Downey's character was younger he got in a car wreck, ruining his older brother's (Vincent D'Onofrio) baseball career. Oddly, the brother doesn't seem too upset (or the scene of him venting got cut – you never know) but by the time this is revealed the movie's plot machinery is in full motion.
This domestic drama has turned to a courtroom battle. Downey will defend the man he most despises (but also wants a hug from.) Evil Billy Bob Thornton is the prosecutor and he's going to bring the hammer of justice down on the Judge. (How evil is Billy Bob? He brings his one of those silver flattening water cups you see in camping stores, and when he opens it it sounds like a sword coming out of a scabbard. That evil!)
There's a stray reference to Atticus Finch, as if we weren't already thinking of “To Kill A Mockingbird” with Duvall in a courtroom drama. Comparisons don't do “The Judge” any favors – a wise editor would have stricken it from the record.
And yet, the performances aren't horrible. Downey can do the slick, narcissistic bit in his sleep by now, but he does get in a few good jokes. Duvall gets good mileage out of his icon status, and the scenes of him succumbing to old age are striking. There is, in fact, one scene of the two men dealing with the indignity of physical human frailty that is, no joke, quite good. It is one of the few show-don't-tell moments and is a mix of sadness and humor – a rare blip of humanity in a script that is otherwise completely by the numbers.
If only the rest of the movie was sharp enough to go for realism instead of a pre-rehearsed cross-examination meant to establish and force feed empathy to an easily swayed jury.