THE JUDGE (Rated R)
Courtroom dramas don’t seem to make it to the big screen with the frequency that John Grisham novels were once adapted for theatrical release.
Not based on a book, “The Judge” is an original, with a story and screenplay put together by members of the film’s creative team.
Having directed raunchy, R-rated comedies “Wedding Crashers” and “The Change-Up,” David Dobkin would seem an unlikely candidate for the same duties in an ambitious legal drama.
And yet, he also co-wrote the story, so it would appear his talents grow more diverse by the project.
For “The Judge,” the filmmakers did themselves a great favor by landing A-list actors for the starring roles of the father-and-son dysfunctional family members.
Robert Downey Jr., excellent outside his superhero comfort zone, and Robert Duvall, always brilliant, are near perfect as one could hope as the reckless son and stern father, respectively.
Downey stars as big city defense attorney Hank Palmer, who returns to his childhood home in rural Indiana where his estranged father, the town’s judge (Duvall), becomes the prime suspect in a hit-and-run murder.
Hank sets out to discover the truth, but not without having to unpack a lot of emotional baggage.
We first glimpse the high-priced lawyer Hank in a Chicago courtroom, mounting a solid defense for a white collar client that is obviously guilty.
That Hank is the counsel that every high-lass criminal wants by his side in a courtroom is understandably irritating to prosecutor Mike Kattan (David Krumholtz).
Exchanging heated words with the prosecutor outside the courtroom, Hank is a master manipulator of the law who keeps his scruples in check because his services are only available to the highest bidder. As he coolly professes to his nemesis, “Innocent people can’t afford me.”
During the middle of a high-profile trial, Hank receives a message that his beloved mother has just passed away.
Hank has had no contact with his dad, and his mom is the one person in his family that he had remained in touch with for the past 20 or so years. His mom’s death is the only event that can draw him home.
What waits for him in the idyllic town of Carlinville, a place caught in a time warp, however, is much more than a memorial service, and far from a warm welcome.
Neither his older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) nor younger one Dale (Jeremy Strong) is ecstatic for Hank’s return. To Joseph Palmer, Hank is definitely not the prodigal son.
Family resentments abound. Glen, we learn, looked to have a promising future as a professional baseball player, which was cut short by an unfortunate accident that may or may not be blamed on Hank.
On the other hand, Dale, the mentally challenged gentle presence, is witness to family dysfunction by his use of the ever-present Super 8 camera.
A complex character, Hank has created a strong protective wall around his emotional being, choosing to deflect even the slightest opportunity for self-reflection with sarcastic humor and intellectual superiority.
His marriage is falling apart and he only cares about his young daughter, though he rarely has time for child-rearing.
Judge Joseph Palmer, though, he may be a man of many contradictions, represents the old guard who sees just about everything in black and white, probably because he’s served as the town’s magistrate for more than four decades. He’s all about honor and protecting his legacy of meting out fair justice. Naturally, the judge does not appreciate his son’s scheming approach to legal matters.
Everyone’s comfort zone is upended when on a rainy night Joseph takes a drive in his vintage Cadillac and returns home with a dented fender and evidence of a possible hit-and-run accident.
The problem is that the dead victim was a local thug that the judge had previously sent to prison.
The senior Palmer claims not to recall the events of that evening, and perhaps there are good reasons why he can’t.
The prosecutor assigned to the case, Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), is determined to find the judge guilty.
After a local attorney (Dax Shephard) bungles the defense, Hank reluctantly steps in, though his father is not too keen for his help.
Though there is plenty of verbal sparring in the judicial chambers, “The Judge” is more family drama than courtroom drama.
One of the best scenes, outside Hank’s efforts to needle prosecutor Dickham, is when prospective jurors are interviewed as part of the jury selection process. The acceptance or exclusion of potential jurors results in some of the most humorous moments.
Not to be overlooked is Hank’s verbally brilliant takedown of a bunch of lowlifes in a bar itching for a fight but backing off in the evitable oral onslaught of a defense attorney’s skewering. Robert Downey, Jr. has a knack for delivering humiliation tinged with sarcasm and biting wit.
“The Judge” may not be the most compelling legal drama, but with Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall in total command of challenging figures in family and legal wrangling, this film proves to be truly effective and entertaining.
Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.