The Judge

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Slick, big-city guy winds up in a local-yokel small town only to find that family and homespun values are all that matter in this crazy world.

Cars? Doc Hollywood? Elizabethtown? Heck, Footloose?

The Judge is just the latest, and frankly it’s not as entertaining as any of them. The performances by Robert Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr. as a hostile father and son are among the best on screen so far this year, but the story that goes with them brings it all down to a level of a mediocre Hallmark Channel movie.

Downey is Hank, a slick corporate lawyer in Chicago who gets a call that his mother has passed away. So he hops in his vintage Ferrari and heads home to backwater Indiana for the funeral and to reunite with his family, including his two brothers—failed baseball player Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and mentally-challenged Dale (Jeremy Strong)—and their father, the crusty town Judge (Duvall). Hank’s old high school girlfriend is still there, too, in the form of local bar owner Sam (Vera Farmiga).

When Hank pulls into town, the mood’s frosty, but we’re not sure why. All we know is that Hank must have done something really bad in the past to not even have his arrival warrant a hug from dear ol’ dad. But then things get even more complicated and fuzzy the morning after the funeral, when Hank notices that the Judge’s car is dented and has blood splatters on it. And then a dead body is discovered across town—a convict who The Judge sentenced and then granted early released to years ago. The Judge doesn’t have any recollection of what happened with the car, but after his arrest, Hank takes it on himself to defend his old man.

Part third-rate Grisham wannabe, part par-boiled family drama, The Judge is director David Dobkin’s (Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus) first foray into drama, and here’s hoping he has it out of his system now. Together with screenwriters Nick Schenk (Gran Torino) and novice Bill Dubuque, he subjects us to one contrivance after another on the way to an all-too-predictable ending. Dale carries an 8mm movie camera wherever he goes, so of course we have plenty of scenes where the old family movies get trotted out, giving the brothers time to reflect on how everyone used to get along so well. Hank’s in the middle of getting a divorce, so of course he and Sam have plenty of cutesy scenes in the bar after hours. And we eventually find out Hank’s big transgression, so of course we have plenty of tearful accusations, followed by plenty of hugs.

Downey (who’s playing someone other than Iron Man or Sherlock Holmes for the first time in almost five years) and Duvall both bring their characters to life with brutally honest performances. It’s just a shame they don’t have a better vehicle in which to do it.

2.5/5 stars