Out of order

Courtroom drama meets (too much) family drama in over-packed film

Robert v. Robert.

Robert v. Robert.

The Judge
Starring Robert Duvall, Robert Downey Jr., Billy Bob Thornton and Vera Farmiga. Directed by David Dobkin. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated R.
Rated 3.0

Early on, The Judge looks as though it is mainly going to be a courtroom drama with a provocative father-son twist. The father and son are played by Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr., respectively, and the key plot hook has the estranged son, an abrasive defense attorney, called on to defend his stand-offish father, a small-town judge with a reputation for stern rectitude, against charges of vehicular manslaughter, or worse.

Director David Dobkin and screenwriters Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque play all that to the hilt, and Duvall and Downey deliver the goods in their respective tailor-made roles. But Dobkin and company load up the father-son drama with more back-story baggage—family secrets, local feuds, repressed memories, old grudges, failed dreams, health crises—than this particular narrative vehicle can carry.

To its credit, the film does linger over some powerful emotional nuances—the role of mutual delusion, for example—in its portrayal of father-son antagonism. And there’s something to be said for any movie that recognizes, at least in part, that a father-son conflict is something that has repercussions for all of the immediate family.

But the story that actually gets laid out here needs a lot more than this movie’s 140-minute running time to take full effect. The games the film plays with audience sympathies is part of the point with the two main characters, but the most devastating moments of revelation are imposed on the narrative rather than integrated into it.

In some respects, the plot of The Judge smacks of being concocted from a laundry list of stock ingredients for soap opera/melodrama/family saga—unrequited love, failed dreams, dementia, small-town feuds and romances, old lovers, an assortment of unhealed wounds to the psyche, car accidents, broken athletes, a mentally handicapped younger brother, etc., etc.

I’d like to have seen all that work better than it does, but ultimately the crucial deficiencies are in the two main characters. Initially, Downey’s Hank Palmer is treated as the movie’s protagonist, until the late and rather sudden revelation scene in which we see how unreliable he is on certain key points. And the characterization of Duvall’s Judge Palmer concludes with a burst of convoluted self-analysis that makes little real sense.

Duvall and Downey remain diligent pros throughout, as does Billy Bob Thornton in the role of the Downey character’s courtroom nemesis (and another of the film’s longtime grudge-holders). Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong hold steady in the thankless roles of the long-suffering older brother and the mentally handicapped younger brother. Vera Farmiga is radiant in the otherwise loony role of Hank’s golden girl from high school days.