The Bock’s Office: ‘The Judge’ can be a bit of a trial to watch
October 16, 2014
The last thing legal counsel wants is to handle the case of someone who shares their surname. The only thing worse is someone who insists on backseat lawyering, something that happens, but isn't as funny as it sounds, in "The Judge."
Chicago defense attorney Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) may not be liked by his colleagues, but he gets the job done in the courtroom. At home, his marriage is all but over, he's in for a huge custody battle, and to top it off, his mother just died.
Heading back home to Carlinville, Indiana, is not high on his to-do list, and making the trip barely seems worth it when he has to contend with his estranged father, the honorable Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), a surly judge who shows his middle son no respect.
After the funeral, Hank is ready to get out of his dad's life, hopefully forever, but before he can hop on a plane, Joseph needs some help. A late-night auto accident that has left a man dead points to the judge as the culprit, and he seems to have no alibi.
Hank's brothers (Vincent D'Onofrio, Jeremy Strong) need all the help they can get in helping their father out, but Hank's reluctance to do so is nothing compared to the old man's refusal to have his boy represent him. Nonetheless, the only way to keep the family name unsullied is for Hank to handle the case, hopefully proving himself after so many years.
Downey has played a lawyer often enough that you really believe he has scads of legal expertise in that noggin of his. It's not just Hank's swagger but that coupled with a knowledge of how to work the system, sometimes wisely so and other times completely dubious, that make him the typical RDJ composite: cocky but deservedly so.
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Naturally, you'd assume working in the same field would draw this father and son closer together, and naturally you'd be wrong. As always, Duvall is likable even at his prickliest as a no-nonsense figure of the courtroom with four decades on the bench, less scared of a life sentence than of losing the legacy he's worked so hard to maintain.
Even so, wouldn't you still want someone a little better than Dax Shepard taking you on as a client? Just because he's honest doesn't disguise his gross inexperience as a storefront lawyer with an office above an antique shop, still getting butterflies in his stomach before heading up the courthouse steps.
D'Onofrio and Strong do well as the other Palmer sons, frustrated Glen and slow but sweet Dale, both outdone by Vera Farmiga as the bigger blast from Hank's past, the high school girlfriend he's never stopped loving, who may be interested in rekindling things.
Then there's Billy Bob Thornton as merciless prosecutor Dwight Dickham, who, even as an out-of-towner in the small burg, doesn't have to dig too deep to learn of Joseph's past with the supposed victim, which almost immediately paints the judge as guilty.
The big show may be in the courtroom, but it's the dysfunctional family reunion at play that director David Dobkin wants us to learn from in the first attempt at a serious feature for the helmer of "Wedding Crashers" and "The Change-Up."
The client/attorney bond between Hank and his dad is all but pointless compared to that of the prodigal son and the parent who drove him away early in adulthood, a trope that's already too recognizable, made more so with the very similar but more lighthearted "This Is Where I Leave You" beating Dobkin's movie to theaters.
At times, it's pleasant to see Hank and Joseph work through years of resentment — Hank's daughter's (Emma Tremblay) easy love for her newfound grandpa is nice — but it feels forced too often. The same issue comes up for the subplot concerning Farmiga as Hank's ex and the details surrounding their teenage courtship, which bring about a twist that's totally superfluous.
Limit family crises to two at a time, please.
The verdict for "The Judge": It's an alright legal drama that's worth watching and might be more powerful if the crusading lawyer didn't have such deep-seated daddy problems with the guy he's defending, proving the law and family don't mix. With less capable actors, the whole thing could be considered a mistrial, but even when they're not at their best, it doesn't take much from Downey and Duvall to get off scot-free in something that's not up to their usual best.