The Judge is the sort of glossy adult-driven Hollywood melodrama we tell ourselves they don’t make any more. Perhaps this perceived shortage led the filmmakers to stuff several dependable formulas into one picture. It’s a father/son reunion story, a courthouse drama, a big town lawyer reconnecting with his small town roots parable, and a workaholic learning to slow down and appreciate the people in his life fable. That’s a lot going on, then add in a handful of medical problems, tragic backstories, mental illness, an old ex-girlfriend, and a tornado warning. It’s overstuffed with reasons to be sentimental, manipulative, and formulaic, turning up reveals and developments at a predictable pace. This is exactly the kind of movie easy to dismiss as too calculatingly sincere and sloppily emotional. And it is. But it’s also the kind of handsome, sturdily square drama that can get in your guts and pull on the heartstrings anyway.
Robert Downey Jr. plays a snarky Chicago lawyer called back to his small Indiana hometown after the death of his mother. There, he clashes anew with his estranged father (Robert Duvall), the picturesque community’s respected judge. He’s boarding the flight home when his brothers (Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) call with terrible news. Their dad has been arrested after blood on his car matched a corpse found on the side of the road, the victim of a hit and run. The old man’s weak of body, but obstinate of spirit. And now he’s charged with manslaughter, a charge increased when the victim is discovered to be a murderer he regretted giving a lenient sentence to years earlier. So it’s up to the hotshot lawyer son to defend his small-town judge father, a tall order given the importance of the case and the history he has with his town and family.
The cast sells it. Downey can do the character arc from cocky pro to humbled man in his sleep. He gives it his usual rascally charm, weaving in some appealing notes of wistful regret as he spars with his old man, catches up with his brothers, and considers rekindling his relationship with his high school girlfriend (Vera Farmiga, glowing with warm charm), who happens to have a daughter (Leighton Meester) as old as they’ve been apart, give or take nine months. Holding down the other half of the drama is Duvall who, at the age of 83, remains an actor incapable of a dishonest moment. He imbues his character with a righteous stubbornness, mourning his wife while bottling up love and pride for his son over resentments that have festered in his two decade absence, and holding back fear for his reputation. The father-son relationship works well, as the plot machinery creaks through its paces.
It’s the craftsmanship that elevates the material. It could’ve been a dopey TV movie without such a strong cast (including a fine supporting turn by Billy Bob Thornton as a sharp-tongued prosecutor who makes a perfect dry foil for Downey’s persona) and a wonderfully expensive look, bathed in light by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. It’s a movie with perfect Main Street Americana, and where every drive down a country road looks like a car commercial. But there’s real manufactured heart in this glossy professionalism. Screenwriters Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque generate a series of scenarios that allow talented actors to breathe some life into cliché. And this is easily director David Dobkin’s best movie, after years of dreck like Fred Claus and the execrable The Change-Up. He directs with slick button-pushing competence. It’s transparent in how it’s going about getting its effects, but, hey, it worked on me.