The real crime of “The Judge” is that the blazing comet that is Robert Downey Jr. and the ever-interesting Billy Bob Thornton play opposing attorneys in a heater case in which the great Robert Duvall is the defendant and oh yes Duvall is Downey’s father to boot — and yet the courtroom fireworks never explode beyond the level of a few popping ladyfingers and maybe one M-80.
What a waste of potential pyrotechnics.
This is the kind of legal thriller in which a judge will lean back and forget he has the gavel so we can get a poignant exchange between witness and attorney — an exchange more appropriate for a family gathering than a murder trial. The kind of movie where revelations and verdicts are met with almost cartoonishly over-the-top collective gasps from the overflow crowd in the courtroom. Come on.
Nearly every scene in “The Judge” lays it on thicker than the syrup on the pancakes they’re serving in the obligatory small-town diner where the townsfolk gather every morning to shoot the breeze.
You ready? Downey plays Hank Palmer, a hotshot shark of a Chicago defense attorney with a slew of wealthy clients, a sprawling estate in Highland Park, a gorgeous wife and an adorable daughter who talks just like adorable daughters always talk in movies such as this. Life isn’t exactly perfect, especially on the home front, but it’s a million miles away from Hank’s upbringing in the rural town of Carlinville, Indiana, which is just the way Hank likes it.
Then comes the call. Hank has to come home to say goodbye to his mother.
As Hank drives his rented vehicle alone through the old hometown, he actually speaks out loud, saying things like, “Nothing ever changes,” even though the visuals are doing a pretty good job of establishing Carlinville as a classic Heartland America small town.
Vincent D’Onofrio, burly and unshaven, plays Hank’s older brother Glen, whose dreams of becoming a pro baseball player were shattered in a car accident just when the scouts where coming ’round to see him.
D’Onofrio does a fine job with the clichéd Brother Who Stayed Behind role. Jeremy Strong, however, is unable to rescue an even more clichéd character. Strong plays Dale Palmer, the third brother, who is mentally challenged and walks around with an 8mm movie camera, which he uses as a buffer from reality. The scene in which Dale shows a montage of old movies to the entire family goes from unbearably mawkish to shamelessly manipulative and utterly illogical, and I’ll just leave it at that.
Duvall is still the best in the business at playing an old cuss, and he’s perfectly cast as Judge Joseph Palmer, who has ruled the local courthouse with an iron gavel for 42 years. The judge’s relationship with Hank is so frosty that when Hank shows up for his mother’s wake, the judge takes a break from hugging all the local cops so he can give his son a handshake.
Director David Dobkin is best known for broad comedies such as “Wedding Crashers,” “Fred Claus” and “The Change-Up,” and he has a decent touch for the lighter scenes involving Hank and an old flame (Vera Farmiga), but when it comes to the melodrama, “The Judge” piles it on at every turn.
After a number of scenes that establish just how much Judge Palmer and Hank despise one another, the judge is accused in a murder case, and after a lot of hemming and hawing he finally, reluctantly asks Hank to defend him.
Enter Billy Bob Thornton as the viper-like prosecutor Dwight Dickham, and yes, the last name is pronounced like you think it’s pronounced. We know Dickham is a formidable SOB because he has one of those collapsible steel drinking cups, and every time he expands it, he might as well be unleashing an executioner’s sword.
In one of the best scenes in the film, Dickham dresses down Hank — not in the courtroom, but in a closed-door meeting between just the two of them. Vera Farmiga’s Samantha also gives Hank a well-deserved lecture about his hyperactive way of “vomiting” glib, second-guessing commentary about everyone in his life.
Robert Downey Jr. is arguably the most talented movie star in the world not to have won an Oscar, but it would be nice to see him change it up and not play yet another character who’s smarter and talks faster than everyone in every room he’s ever in. He has other gears.
Still, Downey commands the screen, and even the minor supporting players such as Leighton Meester and Dax Shepard do fine with the roles they’ve been given.
But the story isn’t there. The actual case isn’t all that complex or compelling, and the eventual explanation for what happened is almost an afterthought. By the time all the ghosts and feuds have been put to rest, it’s surprising how little we care about these characters.
Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by David Dobkin and written by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque. Running time: 141 minutes. Rated R (for language including some sexual references).