“The Judge” is an over ripe melodrama about skeletons in the closet, settling old scores and a father/son rift that calls on the talents of Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall to set off the emotional fireworks with movie-star intensity.
The wheels come off in the third act — and wobble quite badly much earlier actually — but it’s fun to watch these two never-before-teamed actors have a go at each other.
You gotta like these kinds of showdowns between acting heavyweights: the clash of Method actors Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger in “On the Waterfront,” Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster warily sharing the screen in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” and “Seven Days in May” or Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth!” moment in “A Few Good Men.”
Sometimes screen pairings transcend the hokum within which it takes place. As in “The Judge.”
For that matter, all the film’s actors are on their toes with vivid if shallow characterizations that tend to populate Hollywood versions of small-town America. Only a slight resemblance to reality is required and, believe me, it’s slight in this first attack on drama by comedy director David Dobkin.
“The Judge” certainly fits the zeitgeist of the moment as the subgenre dominating the latter half of this year is the Family Skeletons movie. Forced homecomings or unwelcome developments flush out family secrets in “This is Where I Leave You,” “The Skeleton Twins,” “The Drop,” “My Old Lady” and even, arguably, “Gone Girl.”
“The Judge” is a jerry-built melodrama that tries to jam a family reconciliation into a courtroom drama in the John Grisham mode. Such is the mesmeric power of the acting though that lapses in logic or dramatic sense can’t completely undo the movie.
What works well for this conflict is that neither of these characters, an old-school if not Old Testament small-town judge or his glib, overpaid big-city lawyer son, is the least bit likable. If one tends to take Downey’s side, it may owe to his bringing along the baggage from his comedy or superhero outings in recent years.
Like many Family Skeleton movies, death brings a tense family together. Slick Chicago attorney Hank Palmer (Downey) is on the verge of getting another of his “rich and guilty” clients off the hook when news reaches him in court that his mother has died.
He leaves the shambles of his marriage and its inevitable demise to fly home to Carlinville, Indiana, a town which he tells his daughter nobody wants to go to because “every one wants to leave.” Nice line only your first glimpse of a quaint, charming, thoroughly yuppified town completely denies this.
Oh well, never mind, the foul stuff hits the fan almost from the moment Hank pulls into the driveway in a manner that infuriates his bitterly estranged father, whom everyone calls the Judge (Duvall).
Joseph Palmer has occupied the bench for 42 years, inspiring respect from many but hatred by those sentenced in his court. Hank and his father haven’t spoken in years and Hank makes it clear he can’t wait to leave Carlinville.
The exact nature of their animosity is vague but the screenplay delineates a clear difference in approaches to their mutual profession of the law: The Judge believes in justice while Hank believes in winning and using the law to get there.
Over a weekend of funeral, burial and gatherings for his wife the Judge breaks his sobriety of many years, encounters a punk he once sentenced to years of imprisonment and soon afterwards the man is found dead on the road. The Judge’s car is banged up and the victim’s blood found on the grill.
The Judge has no memory of what may have occurred.
Before long — only in the movies can a person be arrested and tried in a handful of days — and against his strenuous wishes, his son insists on joining the defense team to help an overwhelmed local lawyer (Dax Shepard) against a hard-nosed prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton).
Before all this happens though the audience gets to know seemingly half the town. This includes Hank’s brothers, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), a once-promising baseball pitcher whose career was cut short by a car accident involving Hank in his wild teen years, and mentally addled Dale (Jeremy Strong), content to tend the family home movie archive (good to trigger flashbacks).
Then there’s Hank’s old flame Samantha (Vera Farmiga), who looks like she intends to take up right where they left off; her jail-bait daughter Carla (Leighton Meester); the sorry redneck family of the deceased; a doctor (Denis O’Hare) who holds the secret of the Judge’s real mental and physical condition; and various wary cops and members of a local legal system unused to prosecuting one of their own.
Take a deep breath and prepare for a much-too-leisurely 141-minute pace to untangle this web of back stories, grudges and shocking revelations. Even then not every plot strand is fully unraveled.
Clearly the main thrust of the story is for the proud, headstrong Judge and his once wayward now smart-ass son to resolve their estrangement. But a courtroom is a strange if not untenable place for family therapy, sending the third act into theatrical antics that nearly sink the ship.
For Dobkin, it’s a struggle to change his comedy stripes, earned with the likes of “Wedding Crashers,” “Fred Claus” and “The Change-Up.”
Dobkin worked over a screenplay with Nick Schenk, best known for the unlikely Clint Eastwood vehicle “Gran Torino,” and newcomer Bill Dubuque, brought in, according to press notes, because he grew up in Middle America.
I say “worked over” because it feels that way with writing often overwrought and too pointed in scenes lacking in subtext. You might think this script is a boiled-down version of a lengthy novel like, say, “Gone Girl,” with all its subplots vying for attention.
But, no, it’s an overheated hothouse of flora and fauna running amok in a humid atmosphere.
Downey attacks his role with such relish that the actor and character seem like they’re on the same page — it’s all a matter of strategy and cunning to sell a story of a jury (or audience). Duvall is every consigliere, familial patriarch and SOB he’s played in his storied career and he keeps getting better and better at it.
Famiga is great although perhaps too glamorous, a poor fit — not her fault — for this hick town. When she says she would never leave it, you can’t imagine believing that.
The D’Onofrio subplot is hung out to dry. You could literally built a movie about that one but this movie doesn’t even bother to provide the particulars. What car wreck? Who was at fault? Why are both parties so tranquil about what happened?
Maybe this is really a backdoor pilot for a TV series about a town bad boy returned to take up legal cases in the county while he pursues his old flame and makes things up to his brothers. Without Downey and Duvall though, the series wouldn’t stand a chance.
Opens: October 10, 2014 (Warner Bros.)
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, 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
Music: Thomas Newman
Costume designer: Marlene Stewart
Editor: Mark Livolsi
PG-13 rating, 141 minutes