'The Judge': Toronto Review

Robert Downey Jr. The Judge - H 2014

Robert Downey Jr. The Judge - H 2014

Downey and Duvall do what they can to lift this overlong family and legal melodrama

David Dobkin's drama stars Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. as a father and son forced to confront their rocky relationship

A father-and-son drama in which the struggle for a reconciliation gets swept up in an emotionally fraught murder trial, The Judge is well served by intense performances from stars Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall, but is undercut by obvious note-hitting in the writing and a deliberate pace that drags things out about 20 minutes past their due date. This marks Downey's first non-comedy or superhero outing since The Soloist in 2009, and while this is better and far more mainstream than that misfire, the actor's box-office record in straight dramas remains spotty, suggesting a moderate commercial life for this Toronto Film Festival opening-night attraction.

Delving into a serious vein in films for the first time after making his name in comedy with the likes of Shanghai Knights, Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus and The Change-Up, director David Dobkin conscientiously battens down every hatch to the point where spontaneity has been trumped by an over-calculated fastidiousness. Every dot and comma in the script by Nick Schenk (Gran Torino) and first-timer Bill Dubuque, from a story by Dobkin and Schenk, has been tended to, just as the small-town Indiana setting looks manicured to a fare-thee-well.

Downey's hotshot Chicago lawyer Hank Palmer is anything but sympathetic, a slippery customer known for defending “only the rich and guilty,” a guy whose obvious quick wit has soured into attack-mode glibness. At the outset, however, he's sobered a bit by the double whammy of his wife's infidelity and the death of his mother, which sends him on what he intends to be a quick visit home, his first in a very long time.

As in any family drama that aims for emotional eruptions and third-act closure of a sort, there are skeletons in every closet, resentments in every pocket and regrets that must bubble to the surface. Hank's brothers are big man Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio), a once-promising ballplayer whose major league dreams were thwarted, and Dale (Jeremy Strong), the runt of the litter whose mental incapacities leave him little to do but obsess over the family's home movie collection.

Then there's their dad (Duvall), the imposing patriarch everyone calls “Judge” due to his eminent career on the bench dating back more than four decades. Although they theoretically share an interest in the law, Judge's preoccupation with justice stands in distinct relief to Hank's obsession with winning, which is just the professional aspect of the strain between the two gifted men.

“This family's a f—ing Picasso painting,” Hank remarks at the wake before heading out to drink with his brothers at the local bar, where he ends up making out in a phone booth with frisky young waitress Carla (Leighton Meester). Little does he know that she's the daughter of his high school flame Samantha (Vera Farmiga), who later comes on strong as if they have some decades-old unfinished business that must be tended to immediately. Just as the locale looks like a Disneyland version of small-town America, Farmiga looks way too glam for her surroundings.

Other events also conspire to keep Hank downstate longer than he anticipated. Judge, who takes his first drink in 28 years upon his wife's funeral, shows signs of uncharacteristic memory loss; a local lowlife confronts Hank in the bar and soon after is found dead on a highway; Judge's car is banged up from an accident and blood is found on it, and it turns out the victim was a man Judge once sentenced to 20 years.

Before long, there's no way around it: Everything points to Judge having been the driver who hit the guy on the road, turning the town's role model of respectability into a possible criminal — the real question being, did he do it on purpose or accidentally? Never above a sarcastic jibe, Hank allows that since he's "a bit light in [his] pro bono service this year,” he'll agree to join the defense team to help out local greenhorn lawyer (Dax Shepard), who's hardly equipped to take on the smooth prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton).

Increasingly, as attention shifts from Hank's superior attitude toward his family and hometown to the complexity of local politics and Judge's deteriorating physical condition and potential culpability, Duvall's character and performance come into their own. Proud and never one to acknowledge weakness, Judge must finally confront his frailties and mortality, and there are several father-son scenes of considerable intensity that ask both Downey and Duvall to go places they have seldom gone onscreen, physically and emotionally. Even when the circumstances seem contrived, the actors mine moments of truth that resonate with raw emotion. Through rough battles with disease and the law, the two men achieve a closeness that stubbornness and normal times did not foster.

Even more than usual, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski lays on the backlight flare very thickly, often distractingly so. Thomas Newman's score is emotionally obvious and indulges the film's pokey pace. Meanwhile, posh Massachusetts locations stand in unconvincingly for the Indiana farmland setting.

Production companies: Big Kid Pictures, Team Downey
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D'Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, Billy Bob Thornton, Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Sarah Lancaster, Grace Zabriskie
Director: David Dobkin
Screenwriters: Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque, story by David Dobkin and Nick Schenk
Producers: Susan Downey, David Dobkin, David Gambino
Executive producers: Bruce Berman, Steven Mnuchin, Herbert W. Gains, Jeff Kleeman, Robert Downey Jr.
Director of photography: Janusz Kaminski
Production designer: Mark Ricker
Costume designer: Marlene Stewart
Editor: Mark Livolsi
Music: Thomas Newman

Rated PG-13, 141 minutes