When his mother dies, Hank (Robert Downey Jr) reluctantly returns to his hometown for her funeral. While there, he catches up with his old flame Sam (Vera Farmiga) and tries his best not to get involved with his father; the town’s judge. Just as he tries to leave, however, Hank discovers that his father (Robert Duvall) is suspected of murder and is drawn back into family life.
There have been so many film about characters returning to their childhood home, only to discover something new about themselves, and The Judge fits into this category perfectly. Robert Downey Jr’s Hank is a successful lawyer whose marriage is on the rocks and only seems to represent the guilty. After his mother dies, he returns home and is forced to confront his relationship with his father. Garden State, right? Well, Garden State with a murder trial.
Downey Jr is on great form in The Judge, and obviously has a whale of a time playing a confrontational and aggressive lawyer. Robert Duvall also seems to have a great time playing an elderly man with troubles and Vera Farmiga does well as Sam, Hank’s childhood sweetheart. Jeremy Strong brings some charm to the screen as Hank’s younger brother Dale, a man who seems to have a learning disability, which leads to a lot of the film’s comedy and many of its touching moments. The rest of the cast is made up of Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D’Onofrio and Dax Shepard.
The screenplay, written by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque errs on the side of the familiar and the slightly schmaltzy. As well as being pretty much Garden State with a murder trial, the entire affair feels incredibly familiar. Add to this the 141-minute running time, and there is a whole lot of something, and a large amount of nothing going on here. All that said though, there is something warm and endearing about The Judge; perhaps simply the fact that Downey Jr is such a charismatic actor, or the fact that for all its familiarity, this is a story with a warm heart… Even if some of the story choices are more than a little bit questionable.
David Dobkin has a tendency to make a certain type of comedy, so it is good to see the director stretch himself with this tale of familial strife. That said though, he really does allow Downey Jr to dominate proceedings, leaving many of the other characters out in the cold. For all the film’s stupidly long running time though, things do keep moving at a decent pace, and although Downey Jr overpowers many of the other characters, he makes Hank a well rounded character that the audience can’t help but root for.
The Judge feels like we have seen this story told a million times before, and suffers through association with films like Garden State and, in a strange way, Grosse Pointe Blank. Downey Jr is on top form and the rest of the cast do well enough what little they have to do. The running time is ridiculous, and the film struggles through the first act, but underneath the messy elements, there is a warm but slightly strange heart at the centre of The Judge.