'The Judge' delivers misdemeanor entertainment, despite A-List cast 

The Judge | C

Director David Dobkin wants you to hug your dad. And you can feel that insistent desire for almost every minute of The Judge’s too-long 140-minute running time.

Dobkin made his name in Hollywood directing such yuk-fests as Wedding Crashers, Shanghai Knights, and Fred Clause. Here he’s reaching for something a little more substantial. And who can blame him? He’s convinced Robert Downey Jr. to set aside his super suits (the Iron Man movies) and Victorian duds (the Sherlock Holmes movies) to star in his first serious drama since 2009’s The Soloist. Downey’s paired with Oscar-magnet Robert Duvall and a first-rate supporting cast that includes Vincent D’Onofrio, Vera Farmiga, and Billy Bob Thornton. Dobkin also has cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report) and his immaculately backlit compositions to pretty things up, making even his film’s flashback home-movie footage gorgeous.

Unfortunately, all that A-list talent is in service of clumsy direction and a plodding and obvious script (penned by Dobkin, Nick Schenk [Gran Torino] and Bill Dubuque) that’s soaked in push-button sentimentality. While The Judge emulates the John Grisham courtroom dramas that dominated early ’90s cinema, it adds a twist of heartfelt father-and-son weepie to spice things up. Neither the dysfunctional family drama nor the legal mystery is especially interesting. Instead of tears and thrills, Dobkin’s tale of regret, illness, reconciliation, small-town life, and criminal justice only inspires Thomas Newman to compose a cloying musical score and the soundtrack to feature not one, but two instances of Bon Iver’s "Holocene."

Downey is Hank Palmer, a hotshot, hyper-verbal Chicago lawyer who left his highly manicured Indiana hometown after high school and never looked back. When his mom dies, he reluctantly returns for the funeral, reuniting with his high school sweetheart (Farmiga), his autistic younger brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong), and his older brother, Glen (D’Onofrio), whose dreams of being a professional ballplayer ended in a teenage car crash. It’s an awkward homecoming only made worse by papa Joe (Duvall) — the town’s hard-ass, highly respected judge — who barely acknowledges his estranged middle son’s appearance. With an important client and an impending divorce from his cheating wife waiting in the wings, Hank’s plans to split as soon as possible are derailed when his dad is charged with first-degree murder in the hit-and-run death of a man he once convicted. When it’s clear that Joe’s sweet but ineffectual lawyer (Dax Shepard) is in over his head, Hank steps in to defend his pop.

The pairing of Downey and Duvall is an interesting contrast in styles, one known for his restless, off-the-cuff dexterity and charming arrogance, the other almost stately in his crusty bonhomie. It makes for a few effective exchanges — the best of which is a poignant bathroom scene — but mostly leaves each falling back on the shtick they know best. Their relationship lacks a convincing dramatic progression, with each performance contrived to support a particular scene’s needs rather than a logical emotional arc. The worst moment comes during their big blow-up, which Dobkin stages as an exposition-filled screaming match. The entire history of father and son is recounted in one big yelly informational dump as (wouldn’t you know it) a storm rages outside.

Lurching from snarky asides to the indignity of disease to autistic one-liners to long simmering regrets to red herrings and big secrets, The Judge is tonally all over the map. Dobkin mistakes a slow pace for serious contemplation and directs with such self-conscious deliberation that he stifles any spontaneity. The trial, for instance, has its compelling moments, but mostly comes off as tension-free and unfocused, delivering an anticlimactic verdict. Thornton makes for an effectively predatory legal nemesis, but he’s never given a moment to shine. Even the film’s sense of chronology seems murky, with character ages, graduation dates, and potential parentage not syncing up.

Filled with half gestures and full-blooded performances, The Judge has first-degree aspirations but delivers misdemeanor entertainment.

The Judge opens today. It’s rated R with a running time of 142 minutes.


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