If you ever wanted to see the legendary Robert Duvall shit himself like only he can (literally and figuratively), then I've got a movie for you. And I'm not talking about catching a brief glimpse of mild discoloration in his boxers. Oh, no. I'm talking wet, dark, splattering crap exploding out of his ass and onto the white bathroom tile, as well as the feet of his estranged son (Robert Downey Jr.). Come gather 'round, children, and let me tell you about THE JUDGE.
Part family drama, part courtroom procedural, part character study, THE JUDGE is the story of hot-shot Chicago lawyer Hank Palmer (Downey), who returns to his smalltown hometown on the occasion of his mother's funeral. Turns out, many years ago, Hank left home mostly to get away from his hard-driving judge father Joseph (Duvall) to prove to him (and the world) that he could be successful. Hank seems to specialize in clients who are undoubtedly guilty, but he still manages to cast his spells over judges and juries to get them off. In one early scene, Hank pees on the shoes of opposing counsel in the men's room, setting up a family history of bodily excretions on other people's shoes.
Once home, Hank isn't exactly given the prodigal-son-returns welcome. His brothers—Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) and the vaguely mentally deficient Dale (Jeremy Strong)—are mildly happy that he came back, but Judge Palmer is ambivalent, even hostile about it. Hank even runs into his old flame, Samantha (Vera Farmiga), providing some of the only engaging moments in the film.
The night of mom's funeral, Joseph is involved in an incident in which he may or may not have run down a man on his bike during a rainstorm. And he may or may not have done it on purpose. It becomes clear that the judge doesn't remember the incident or exactly what led up to it, but because he had a history with the deceased, he's arrested and brought up on first-degree murder charges. Let me see, do we know anyone who specializes in these type of cases? What a lucky coincidence!
I suppose the set up to THE JUDGE is passable, but once the investigation begins in earnest, the film starts to become more and more ridiculous and just plain silly. Bits of evidence reveal themselves like clockwork, as if the filmmakers were afraid of letting the case occur like a normal one might. If the audience isn't being made to ooh and aah at regular intervals, the story hardly seems worth telling, I guess. And then we have to endure horseshit family issues and secrets as well, all of which is going to give you whiplash from rolling your eyes so hard. At every turn, THE JUDGE take the longest, most winding road to get from Point A to Point B(ullshit), and as a result, the film clocks in at just under 2.5 hours. Enjoy that.
And then there's Downey, whom I love dearly, but he needs to get a new act. Playing yet another variation of Tony Stark, here Downey again feels the need to be the smartest guy in the room with the biggest personality problems. And believe me, The Judge doesn't spare us the smallest detail of what made Hank the heartless prick that he grew up to become, with none of it amounting to anything original or interesting. Downey plays it convincingly enough, but the revelations about his troubling relationship with Judge Dad don't really enlighten us they way a better-written film might have.
Toss in a supporting cast that includes Billy Bob Thornton as the man trying to convict the judge, Dax Sheppard as Hank's local co-counsel, Leighton Meester as the local bartender, and Ken Howard as the judge in Joseph's case, and you've certainly got a bunch of actors trying really hard to make something worthy. Director David Dobkin (WEDDING CRASHERS, THE CHANGE-UP) might be out of his depth with this one. But the true culprit might simply be a screenplay that attempts to cram too much into a single film, and as a result, all of the pieces feel undercooked and unfinished.
The movie lingers into sentimentality far too long and often, and eventually it just grows tiresome, almost daring the audience to keep caring about these aggressively dickish characters. And really the last thing I want is to watch a great cast like this shit the bed (not even Robert Duvall). There are simply too many better options this weekend alone to waste your time on THE JUDGE.