The Judge, a glossy hybrid of legal thriller, family drama and, er, romantic comedy, wants to be all things to all people and is not shy about it – so much so that everything in this long, slow-moving film hits you over the head like an emotional hammer. Director David Dobkin has worked primarily in comedies like Wedding Crashers until now, and doesn’t quite seem to know how to handle melodrama – everything comes at you like a truck (or in this case, a car driven by a cantankerous old man), except that the truck blares its horn first for minutes on end, slams into you anyway, then keeps honking as it drives away.
I mean, take the plight of Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr., whose Team Downey production company has made this its opening gambit). Hank is a hot-shot lawyer from Chicago who has to return home to his small Indiana hometown for the funeral of his mother. While he is there, his father – an esteemed local judge (Robert Duvall) who has served on the bench for 40 years and from whom Hank is estranged – is accused of murdering some sleazeball who just got done with the 20-year sentence the judge slapped on him years back. Hank, of course, offers to defend his dad, but not before the two get in each other’s faces…over and over and over again.
But wait: Hank is also going through a divorce back home, he’s trying to stay involved in his daughter’s life, he’s still haunted by guilt over an incident back in their youth that ended the pro baseball dreams of his older brother (Private Pyle – I mean, Vincent D’Onofrio) and he may have just found out in a bizarrely inappropriate manner about the possible daughter (Leighton Meester) he didn’t know he had with the girlfriend he left behind in Indiana (Vera Farmiga). With all that, I’m surprised it takes Hank almost the full 140-minute running time before he finally breaks down and has a good cry.
As you can see, The Judge has got way too much going on. Most of its various subplots clash awkwardly in tone and content and Dobkin can’t effectively navigate his way through them. His answer is just more: it’s not enough for Hank and his dad to nearly come to blows, they have to do it in the middle of a raging tornado that literally springs out of nowhere. It’s also not enough to find out that the judge has cancer – we have to watch him and Downey slip and slide around in the old man’s accidental bowel movement as they stumble into the bathtub.
To be fair, there is a twinge of heartbreak and poignancy as we watch Duvall drop his crusty old coot shell during this scene and play the raw anguish of a man betrayed by his own body, while Downey also loses his snarky exterior and does everything he can to help his father. But moments like this are at odds with the jokey junior lawyer (Dax Shepard) who pukes outside the courthouse every morning, the shadowy scenes inside the courtroom itself made to look like something out of Kafka, and the truly distasteful subplot involving Farmiga’s thankless character (all she basically tries to do for the entire picture is fuck her ex) and her offspring, of which the ultimate resolution sort of just gets waved off to the side even though it’s still pretty creepy.
Downey is mostly doing his usual routine here, although he dials down the smart-ass a bit and brings a little more earnestness into the mix – he does, at least, seem invested in Hank’s pain. Duvall is always watchable even though he’s playing the same grumpy grandpa we’ve seen him do for a few years now, but Farmiga, D’Onofrio, Billy Bob Thornton as the lawyer trying to put the judge behind bars, and Jeremy Strong as Hank’s younger autistic brother – oh yeah, did I mention he has an autistic brother? – are left at the mercy of underwritten and uneven roles.
They’re also at the mercy of the relentless “cry-here-now” score and, more importantly, the overwrought script by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, who seem to have never met a cliché they didn’t like. The film is beautifully shot (we’re still not sure why Downey hates coming back to his hometown – it looks lovely) with handsome production values, but I bet if you threw $50 million at some formulaic Hallmark Channel weepie you could make that look fabulous too. The Judge is meant to be a crowdpleaser, but in throwing literally everything into its two-plus-hours that one could think of – murder mystery, father/son issues, romance, medical tragedy, courtroom drama, etc. – it ends up trying too hard and coming across instead as slick and empty. Of that, The Judge is guilty as charged.
The Judge is out in theaters Friday, October 10.