Overview: A cocky, successful lawyer returns to his hometown in the wake of his mother’s death and is forced to face unresolved issues with his father when he becomes his defense attorney. Warner Bros. Pictures; Rated R; 141 minutes.
The Familiar: As much as The Judge has been touting itself for being an original, real drama about real people and their family dynamics, it brings very little new and groundbreaking to the table. Restless, small town girl/boy escaping hometown roots and suffocating family issues only to have to return and face the music is a tune we’ve all heard time and time again. The lighthearted comedic moments sprinkled in with the darkly tense and dramatic atmosphere result in countless contrived emotional moments. It’s Sweet Home Alabama meets August: Osage County with a male protagonist. The moments that are meant to be surprising are largely predictable (did anyone actually believe Judge Palmer had been hitting the bottle again?) and the character arcs are ones we’ve seen numerous times in similar circumstances.
The Even More Familiar: Speaking of said protagonist, let’s talk about Robert Downey Jr. for a moment. There’s no doubt he puts on an impressive performance here as Henry “Hank” Palmer, but it’s the same impressive performance we’ve been watching since 2008. He’s Tony Stark from Iron Man, Peter Highman from Due Date, and Sherlock Holmes from Sherlock Holmes, but with a fancy new suit and a law degree. He does the pretentious, smart mouthed, condescending but good-hearted schtick remarkably well, but it’s becoming routine.
The Genuine: The Judge is not completely devoid of originality and moments that exhibit authentic and sincere human emotions. Robert Duvall (who gives audiences his most riveting performance in years) and Robert Downey Jr. have powerful chemistry as a father and son duo with hot tempers and headstrong personalities, and the best scenes in this film happen when the two are together. There is a scene about halfway through the film when both men are forced to set their egos aside and son has to step in and care for his father at his most vulnerable. It’s heartbreaking, honest, and one of the most genuine interactions I’ve seen in the theater in a long time, making the entire two and a half hours worth watching. As we grow older, every family arrives at that life altering moment when the child becomes the parent, whether it’s temporary or permanent, and Downey and Duvall nail the raw vulnerability and emotion that goes hand-in-hand with this inevitable exchange of responsibility. It’s a universally relatable situation that’s portrayed without the frills and fluff that crank of the drama in the rest of the film, and if the same careful, gentle touch of humanity had been used in more than just the one scene, The Judge would have been able to elevate itself to a much higher caliber than mediocre.