Published Oct 09, 2014You can often tell the worth of an actor by what they are able to do with mediocre material. A lot of people may be able bring a great script to life, but it's someone truly special who can take one that's lacking and still make it work. David Dobkin's The Judge is a fairly by-the-numbers courtroom and family drama, but in the hands of Robert Downey, Jr., Robert Duvall and a dream supporting cast, it somehow ends up still feeling emotionally satisfying.
The story's the kind that can be easily encapsulated in a trailer or elevator pitch. Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.) is a hotshot lawyer who knows all the angles, except that he's going through a divorce with his wife and just found out that his mother passed away. Returning to his home in rural Indiana, he's reunited with the distant father Joseph (Duvall) who inspires the film's title and is forced to deal with all the issues that he's been trying to escape.
It's when Joseph hits and kills a guy he once sentenced with his car one rainy night that Hank finds himself defending his father in the courtroom in the trial of his life. He's up against a formidable prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton) and, though Joseph conveniently has no memory of what happened at the crucial moment of impact, the deck is stacked against Hank providing reasonable doubt that he didn't intentionally run him off the road that night.
If it sounds like a pretty hackneyed and contrived synopsis, that's because it kind of is. But it's in the details that the film finds its depth and humour. Vincent D'Onofrio brings his typical level of commitment to Hank's older brother, who had his dreams of playing professional baseball abruptly crushed, while Jeremy Strong's youngest brother is afflicted with the kind of movie mental illness that allows him to comfortably slip into the role of comic relief.
Vera Farmiga and Dax Shepard help fill out underwritten roles as Hank's obligatory love interest and right-hand man in the courtroom, respectively, and even Thornton is allowed to show some unexpected dimensions to what would typically be a one-note villain. That said, the movie's success rests mostly on the strength of its two leads. Duvall continues to showcase the rare ability to portray cantankerous just as well as he can vulnerability, and Downey, Jr. has the unique kind of magnetism to make every scene he's in a little better simply by virtue of his presence.