The Judge movie review: you can go home again

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The Judge green light

Avoids feeling as supremely calculated as it is, perhaps because Robert Downey Jr.’s snark and Robert Duvall’s crusty pragmatism vaccinate against it.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Robert Downey Jr.

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

It’s kind of amazing how many classic Hollywood melodrama clichés are crammed into The Judge: father-son angst; small-town life; conundrums of American justice; there’s even baseball and pie. I’d even call it downright awards bait-y, except Robert Downey Jr.’s Oscar clip features too many fucks to work on network television. And yet, The Judge manages to avoid feeling as supremely calculated as it is, perhaps because Downey Jr.’s snark and Robert Duvall’s crusty pragmatism won’t allow it: the nearly trademarked qualities of the actors’ onscreen charisma vaccinate against it. So even as they play out a warming of the estrangement between the younger’s hot-shot Chicago lawyer and the elder’s rural Indiana judge, the film never gets sappy with it. A flying visit home for Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.: Chef) for the funeral of his mother turns into a longer stay when Dad (Duvall: Jack Reacher) — “I wish he died instead of Mom” — is accused of a hit-and-run that killed a former felon whom everyone agrees was “the biggest mistake” of the judge’s career… and so The Judge is also a murder mystery with only one suspect, because both the elder Palmer’s respectability and the fact that something is clearly medically wrong with him — could it be incipient Alzheimer’s? — throws doubt on his culpability. Will Hank, who has not been overly “encumbered” by legal ethics in the past, find a way to earn the respect of his straight-arrow father as he represents Dad in the very court Dad has presided over for decades? Will he get the hug from Dad he has long yearned for? You already know the answers, but getting there is entertainingly diverting, thanks to the wonderful cast, which also includes Vera Farmiga (The Conjuring) as Hank’s high-school girlfriend — the screen sparks when they appear together — Vincent D’Onofrio (Escape Plan) and Jeremy Strong (Parkland) as Hank’s brothers, and Billy Bob Thornton (Parkland) as the prosecuting attorney Hank squares off against. As long as you’re not expecting to be surprised, it all works beautifully.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of The Judge for its representation of girls and women.

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Fri, Oct 17, 2014 5:08pm

Does anyone else think RDJ looks like a younger Al Pacino? Pairing him with Robert Duvall just kind of confirms it for me.

Sat, Oct 18, 2014 6:42pm

Dumb question maybe, but before I spend time and money I need to know I can enjoy the performances without being bugged by a plot point…tell me truly, it is made clear on the film that Downey’s character has passed the bar in both Illinois and Indiana, right?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  LaSargenta
Sun, Oct 19, 2014 2:34pm

There’s a reference to a previous case he worked on in Indiana, so while it’s never explicitly stated, the implication is there.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sun, Oct 19, 2014 2:53pm

Thank you.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Mon, Oct 20, 2014 8:19pm

Also, lawyers can generally work on out-of-state cases by associating with an in-state attorney. Which Downey’s character does, and the Indiana guy is actually the primary counsel.

The movie’s about par for the course in “legal realism in movies.” The bit that annoyed me is one that comes up in lots of courtroom drama: the “surprise” bit of evidence that changes the entire direction of the case… but for some reason isn’t brought to light until the trial is well under way.

reply to  David_Conner
Mon, Oct 20, 2014 8:44pm

Ok, thanks. That wasn’t clear from the trailer I saw. In the normal way of things IRL, I would have expected that on a non-federal case. (I also had no clue if there was reciprocity with IL and IN.)

I’m not a lawyer — nor do I play one — I’m just a weirdo who gets bothered by odd things like that in service of a story. o_O

Uh, and, yeah, I’m with you on the “surprise” evidence bit. Legally, I’d assume the only real “surprise” that can happen during the trial is when the defense discovers the prosecutor is hiding evidence… sort of like what was dramatised in In The Name of The Father.

Sun, Oct 19, 2014 10:20am

The trailer made it look like the first film of the awards season, but at least it has a solid cast.

Mon, Dec 01, 2014 9:50pm

Finally got around to seeing this last night. Meh.

In the future, I’m going to avoid movies with trial scenes that involve (a) a lawyer and a person taking the stand (b) who hash out personal conflicts (c) while the opposing lawyer and judge do nothing to get them back on track.