Judge what I say, not what I do.
Film Review © 2014 by Trip Reynolds
Directed by David Dobkin. Screenplay by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque. Story by David Dobkin and Nick Schenk. Produced by David Dobkin, Susan Downey, and David Gambino. Executive produced by Bruce Berman, Robert Downey, Jr., Herb Gains, Greg Garthe, and Jeff Kleeman.
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr. (as scorned and jaded son, and aloof attorney Hank Palmer), Robert Duvall (as father of Hank Palmer, "The Judge," Joseph Palmer), Vera Farmiga (as former "small town" love interest of Hank Palmer, Samantha Powell), Billy Bob Thornton (as teh no-nonsense prosecuting attorney, Dwight Dickham), Vincent D'Onofrio (as older brother of Hank, Glen Palmer), Jeremy Strong (as the mentally disabled younger brother of Hank, Dale Palmer), Dax Shepard (as C.P. Kennedy), Leighton Meester (as booty-call to Hank, and daughter of Samantha Powell, Carla Powell), Ken Howard (as Judge Warren), Emma Tremblay (as daughter of Hank Palmer, Lauren Palmer), Balthazar Getty (as Deputy Hanson), David Krumholtz (as Mike Kattan), Grace Zabriskie (as Mrs. Blackwell), Denis O'Hare (as Doc Morris), Sarah Lancaster (as soon to be divorced wife of Hank Palmer, Lisa Palmer), and a host of others.
The "thing" about Robert Downey, Jr. is that he's so believeable, so watchable in whatever role he portrays. From "Chaplin (1992)" to "Iron Man (2008)" to "Sherlock Holmes (2009)" to whatever; Downey just draws you into his . . . technique . . . and you suspend your disbelief and take him seriously. In "Tropic Thunder (2008)" Downey played the role of a White actor, Kirk Lazarus, who played the role of a Black man, but not in the ole "Black face" make-up particular to Fred Astaire, Amos and Andy, Al Jolson and so many White actors in the 1920s through the 1940s. On the contrary, Kirk Lazarus (Downey) was a White actor in sepia tone colors that realistically presented him as a Black man, and Downey nailed the part, not as a caricature of a Black man, but as a realistic human being who happened to be Black - and yes, there's a big difference. The same is true with Downey in, "The Judge," as the extremely aloof, very rich, city-slicker defense attorney Hank Palmer, who's also the scorned and jaded son of small town Judge Joseph Palmer, played by iconic actor Robert Duvall.
The "thing" about Robert Duvall is that he's also so very believeable, so watchable in whatever role he portrays. From "To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)" to "True Grit (1969)" to "The Godfather (1972)" to whatever; Duvall just draws you into his . . . technique . . . and you suspend your disbelief and take him seriously. In "Open Range (2003)" Duvall played the role of rancher Boss Spearman, a proud man of simple but well-defined principles. Such characteristics dominate many of his roles, but as with his protrayal of Lieutenant ("I love the smell of napalm in the morning!") Colonel Bill Kilgore in "Apocalypse Now (1979)" or as Mac Sledge in "Tender Mercies (1983)" his performances are always fresh and never stereotypical. Plus, when required Duvall can project a dastardly twinkle in his acting eye and become exceptionally fiendish.
The "thing" about Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall is that they're very, very good together, they're excellent in this film. However, given that actors in this film function as a member of an ensemble, and not as a duo, the script literally failed to make better use of Vincent D'Onofrio, as the older brother of Hank (Downey), Glen Palmer - because the centerpiece for the angst and animosity between Hank and his father, the Judge, occurred as a direct result of Hank's reckless behavior as a youth that ruined his older brother's chances to become a professional baseball player. Glen Palmer (D'Onofrio) should have been a greater focus in the story, but appeared more as a cameo than as a supporting role in the film. D'Onofrio, who's probably best known for his role as Detective Robert Goren on the semi-legendary TV series, "Law & Order: Criminat Intent (2001 - 2011)" is an known as "an actor's actor," but has yet to receive the recognition his talent deserves in theatrically release films. Likewise, Hank's former "small town" love interest, Samantha Powell (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter, Carla (Leighton Meester), as Hank's booty-call, received more script and screen time than the actual cause for the animosity between Hank and the Judge. The character interaction and storyline involving Hank and Glen's mentally disabled younger brother, Dale Palmer (played realistically by Jeremy Strong), was given greater focus. Frankly, as a dramatic work, the boys-club of leading actors in "The Judge" should have been as compelling as the girls-club of leading actors in "August: Osage County (2013)," which starred Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis - but this did not occur.
Without revealing the film's outcome, the "Judge" (Duvall) received his final day in court, centered around an act of violence that was not at all consistent with the personal character and professional principles of a man with the ironclad will of Judge Joseph Palmer. It didn't make sense, and appeared as an unnecessary plot device for dramatic impact, and nothing more. In this regard, watching an old Raymond Burr "Perry Mason" television (1957 to 1966) espisode would have been more . . . compelling; or watching any of the "Law and Order" television derivatives (SVU, Criminal Intent, etc.). Acting by all player is solid; however, as a feature film, we should expect more in script and storyline, which we did not receive with "The Judge."
Direction by David Dobkin is solid, but pacing was too slow, even though editing by Mark Livolsi was sharp. Film should have been cut 21 minutes, from 141 minutes to 120 minutes. Ending suggests a sequel might occur, that Hank might leave the big city and relocate back to his home town. No way.
Recommendation: Watch syndicated espisode of "Law and Order: Criminal Intent" with Vincent D'Onofrio on USA Network. As far as "The Judge," if you've got two-and-a-half hours to burn, wait for your $5.00 copy at Walmart, or rent it, or search to watch it free online.