Magazine | November 17, 2014, Issue

Overruled on Appeal

Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall in The Judge (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

When skills are neglected, they atrophy. When crafts are abandoned, it’s hard to pick them up again. When forms of art grow rare enough, people can simply forget how to re-create them.

These are all possible epitaphs for a movie that by rights I should be praising as a model for our adolescent-chasing, franchise-recycling, superhero-happy film industry. It’s a movie for adults, a drama about family, an intimate portrait of ordinary human life. It has as good a cast as any film you’ll see this year; it stars an actor who ought to be making more films like this instead of rotting away inside a superhero suit. I saw it, notwithstanding negative buzz, because I wanted to believe that a big-screen drama along these lines could work, entertain, succeed.

And . . . nope. The movie is The Judge, and it stars Robert Downey Jr. as Hank Palmer, a defense lawyer who’s rich and successful and as arrogant as Iron Man, who gets summoned back from the big city to his native Indiana sod by his mother’s death and his dad’s decline. That dad is played by Robert Duvall, and he’s the judge of the title: a small-town icon presiding over a private-fiefdom courtroom, a Great Santini–esque disciplinarian whose punitive spirit drove his middle son (Downey) to rebellion and exile, even as older and younger brothers (one a failed athlete, the other a mentally challenged sweetheart) remained under the old man’s thumb.

But the judge is aging, maybe ill, definitely subject to occasional mental lapses — and just as Downey’s Hank is about to shake the dust off and head back to his cheating wife and wise-child daughter in Chicago, the old man gets in a car accident, one that conveniently bumps off (literally) a recently released ex-con who had a run-in with the judge long years before. Before you can say “Atticus Finch,” the prodigal son is offering his services as defense counsel, and though the old man demurs crustily at first, you know that it won’t be long before our Hank gets his day in court, his chance to tangle with the hotshot prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton as a character named, I kid you not, Dwight Dickham) who’s bent on convicting the judge in his very own courtroom.

This summary, overripe as it may sound, does not begin to do justice to the overstuffed quality of The Judge, which finds room for endless subplots, all (necessarily) underplotted. The older Palmer brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) lost his pitching career when Hank crashed their car and broke his arm, and his resentment is a slow-burning fuse that you keep expecting to reach the dynamite. (Spoiler: It doesn’t.) The local beauty whom Hank once romanced (Vera Farmiga) now runs the local diner and has resentments of her own — as well as secrets, notably the paternity of her lovely daughter (Leighton Meester). Hank’s impending divorce gets 1.5 scenes; his daughter’s introduction to small-time life comes and goes and is forgotten; about the younger brother’s Rain Man–ish antics with his video camera, the less said the better. And then of course there’s all the local color (the town is supposed to be a Mayberry, though its main street looks more like one of the richer towns on Metro-North), the courtroom posturing, and even a random tornado that whirls through so that Hank and his dad can yell at each other while branches are falling on their heads.

The whole movie feels like the work of a committee deep within some studio, staffed by men who have spent their entire careers making remakes of reboots of blockbusters from 20 years ago. Suddenly, they get a tossed-off query from their boss. “Hey, we used to make movies for grownups. How did those work?” And this is what they come up with — a movie that’s a simulacrum of an authentic human drama, with plotlines stolen from a dozen films and a script that feels like every line was copied.

And the thing of it is, Duvall is good enough that The Judge is almost still worth seeing. The rest of the cast, Downey unfortunately included, is pulled down by the material, but the judge is somehow real, lived-in, charismatic, and Duvall’s performance alone suffices to remind you why this kind of story — the kind with fathers and sons, and without special effects or psychopaths or superheroes — is still, after all, worth telling.

Now we just need to find somebody who remembers how to tell it.

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