Director David Dobkin swaps out comedy for a full-on courtroom drama with The Judge, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. The Judge isn’t exactly your typical cookie-cutter courtroom drama and instead a human drama about relationships and how they sculpt us into the men and women that we are today. Dobkin keeps The Judge balancing finely between being sweet, enduring and yet realistic enough to never become something too sappy or emotionally draining, while RDJ proves yet again that he’s so much more than Iron Man for The Avengers with a performance that shows off a different side of the actor ever since he came back into the spotlight. The Judge may not win anyone over with its mostly formulaic story, but it’ll pull some big tears down from your cheeks by the time everything wraps up.
Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is a big city hotshot lawyer. He mostly defends the guilty criminals that need to stay out of prison, but that all changes once he finds out about his mother passing and decides to trip home to visit his problematic father Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall). The two clearly never had a strong or close relationship, which makes things incredibly difficult once Hank finds out that his father is being accused of murdering a man in cold blood.
Hank, against his best judgment and against his father’s own will, decides to stay and defend a man that never gave him a chance his entire life.
The Judge is a drastic change of pace for director David Dobkin, who was last seen directing such films as The Change-Up and Wedding Crashers. Here, Dobkin is in full-on drama mode, creating a film that certainly has its funny moments, but mostly relies on its bullshit-cutting drama and touching moments of late family bonding. And Dobkin does a mighty fine job directing The Judge with an honest sense of family understanding, despite the main characters’ many differences.
The film’s R-rating helps the dialog and general story establish a sense of realism and gives the film a unique feeling that surprisingly strays away from the typical Fall Oscar grabbing that happens with these sorts of films. The Judge isn’t your typical courtroom drama and it’s not exactly the most basic of family dramas either, instead the film settles for a little bit of both, weaving in legal lingo into a story that’s ultimately about a father and son reconnecting after many years of arguing and misunderstanding.
It’s a slower film that takes its sweet time establishing itself and eventually coming to a predictable, but still fully satisfying conclusion, but it’s within that time that Dobkin allows for his cast to really sink their teeth into the material and encompass the film’s simple story with such conflicting and troubled characters.
Robert Downey Jr.‘s Hank is the son that has always searched for his father’s approval but never got it, thus deciding to leave town and make a much bigger name for himself. He’s cocky and full of himself, much like characters that RDJ has grown accustom to playing, but he’s also just a damaged individual trying to make sense of his past and create a peaceful present with his daughter. He’s trying so desperately to mend his mistakes and by doing so he brings his own baggage to the mix, which creates a confusing situation for his father, played with great stubbornness and yet enough likability by Robert Duvall.
Duvall’s Judge character isn’t your basic hard ass father trying to take out his problems on his family. He’s a celebrated Judge that’s had his own share of doubts and questionable life choices and he chooses to handle them with a gigantic barrier that absolutely cannot be breached by anyone, aside from his now-passed wife. Judge and Hank’s relationship is the key to The Judge‘s success as a film, because both men do such a great job colliding with each other and then eventually coming together for the film’s predictable, but yet still enjoyable and heartwarming ending.
The Judge is a film that plays out exactly like you’d figure it to, from a story point of view, but it’s also a film that’s full of surprises from an acting point of a view, because RDJ and Robert Duvall bring their A game to the film and inject it with so much unfiltered life. And Dobkin captures it with little interruption, oftentimes letting their small banter spill into the film’s greater moments, which makes for a good film with great performances.
The Judge isn’t an Oscar-worthy drama by any means, but it does contain a lot of heart and good graces, thanks to RDJ and Robert Duvall‘s performances, which will earn the audiences tears and then some. The Judge will be that quiet little drama that came and went rather quickly in October, but will hopefully be discovered on home video, because it really is a good film that occasionally becomes great. There’s still no denying that it follows a rather straightforward path to its eventual end, but Dobkin, RDJ and Duvall definitely give the film enough juices to function much better as a character-focused piece that should be praised for its performances and not so much its overall impact as a film.
The Judge – 7/10