“The Judge” is a big, sloppy kiss of a tribute to family ties. One you wish would close its lips more often.
Don’t like the visual? It’s nothing compared with the bodily-fluid bonanza on screen. The surfeit of bathroom humor, in a movie being advertised as a heartfelt family drama, is a) gross, and b) undercuts the one scene of this nature not meant for laughs.
But “The Judge,” in which Robert Downey Jr. plays Hank Palmer, a hotshot Chicago defense attorney at odds with his small-town Indiana judge father (Robert Duvall), does not know when to quit. For instance, it does not quit with Hank coming home, after many years away, to grieve his just-departed mother and face the quietly hostile father from whom he long has been estranged.
That would be drama enough for some films. “The Judge” is just getting started.
Hank has just boarded the plane back to Chicago from Indiana, with his sights set on sleeping somewhere other than the clichéd childhood-bedroom-now-filled-with-junk at his father’s house, when he learns the judge might have hit and killed a man with his car. A man the judge happened to know and hate.
When his father is arrested, Hank wants to defend him, but the old man refuses. Dad and other residents of Hank’s hometown are keeping secrets. Because small towns in movies hold more intrigue than small towns in life.
Even as it piles on contrivances, you root for “The Judge,” because it offers three actors who easily could hold the screen on their own: Downey, Duvall and Vincent D’Onofrio, who plays Hank’s brother, Glen.
Logic tells us these three bottomless charisma sources will compete for attention on screen. They do not. They mesh, because Downey’s and Duvall’s styles are complementary and because D’Onofrio can adjust his wattage to a situation.
Watching these actors together gives one the feeling of something very special afoot. You know it’s special because Billy Bob Thornton figuratively slinks away from the triple-D triumvirate by giving an uncharacteristically mild performance as a prosecutor.
Downey’s presence here, as in most of his films, is sharp and alert. Hank, when not actually talking, often looks as if he wants to add just one more thing. He funnels his resentment of his father into smart remarks, because vulnerability does not move the judge.
What does move him is a mystery. Downey invests Hank with such a strong desire to unlock that mystery that his body practically hums with it. The son is the pursuer and the father the subject of his fascination, and ours.
Call it a twinkle, a sparkle, or in “The Judge,” more of a roil, but there is that quality to Duvall’s eyes that always suggests his characters know more than they let on. Those eyes mesmerize in “The Judge,” in which Duvall once again shows an uncanny ability to draw viewers to him while giving away little.
When the judge finally softens up a bit, Duvall generates genuine audience waterworks.
Hank and the judge are demanding personalities – Hank in seeking explanations or airing grievances, and the judge in requiring interested parties to do all the work in getting to know him. D’Onofrio makes Glen, by contrast, easier in manner. Thus it makes sense that he gets along with the judge and Hank.
Glen is no pushover – he rolls his eyes at Hank for making everything about his drama with the dad – but he is not motivated by anger or bitterness. This is regular-guy, “Mystic Pizza” D’Onofrio, which is the opposite of intense, “Criminal Intent” D’Onofrio.
David Dobkin (“Wedding Crashers”) directed and co-wrote, but it seems like Downey might have called the shots. This hunch comes from seeing Downey’s name, and that of his wife, Susan, in the producer credits, and from having watched Downey in interviews and on awards stages. Downey is smart, witty, honest and self-indulgent, and this movie is all those things.
The pairing of Downey and Vera Farmiga, as Hank’s old girlfriend, is oddly disastrous. Her lines do not seem to follow his, and vice versa, and a few seemingly ad-libbed moments play as outtakes that made it into the final product somehow.
“The Judge” contains bad scenes and also just too many scenes. The script plays coy about the Hank-judge conflict’s source, seemingly just so it eventually can fuel an awkward, angry group scene. A line or two of dialogue would have sufficed.
The lengths to which the filmmakers go, in stretching out subplots and relying too often on gross-out humor, were not needed in a film with such strong talents.
* * 1/2