Film Review: The Judge

In The Judge, out Friday at theaters areawide, high-profile Chicago defense attorney Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) must defend his father, Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), a long-tenured district judge in Carlinville, Ind., after he's been accused of murder in the wake of his wife's death. Downey Jr., channeling Tony Stark, and Duvall, channeling Robert Duvall, both play roles they could more or less play in their sleep (douchey big-city lawyer and stern grandpa, respectively) and together escort this courtroom-slash-family drama to basic success.

But don't buy a large popcorn expecting a John Grisham thriller or anything. The courtroom scenes, which don't quite sizzle, are ultimately what you'll be waiting for. And despite a lackluster showing from Billy Bob Thornton as a determined prosecutor, the jury selection and the cross-examinations and the non-stop "Objection!-Overruled!-Objection!" sequences are all serviceable entertainment, to say nothing of the daily vomiting and wow-gosh advocacy of nebbish co-counsel C.P. (Dax Shephard, in his second supporting role in as many months). Still, much more of the film is Hank Palmer, reckoning concurrently with the father and the hometown he abandoned.

"You're just a boy from Indiana who's gonna do whatever he has to do to prove that's not true," a high-school flame (Vera Farmiga) tells him midway through the film.

Hank, who derailed the potential pro baseball career of his big brother (Vincent D'Onfrio) with a high-school car accident, was never the same in his father's eyes. He booked it to Chicago — graduating first in his class from Northwestern Law! — and didn't look back. When he arrives home for his mother's funeral after a 10-year silence, he greets his father as "Judge" and receives an impersonal handshake.

Tension (and, occasionally, private affection) mounts between them as the Judge admits a serious medical condition (Duvall's eggish head has never been more softly boiled), Hank flies his daughter in to meet her grandpa for the first time, and the murder for which the judge is accused emerges in sharper focus.

You'll know the full story and every character arc by about minute 25, but the remaining two hours — it's super long — will still be a joyride for lovers of RDJ and/or lawyerly inner turmoil. Consider it the somber, Midwestern sibling of last month's This is Where I Leave You.

Sidenote: Bon Iver's "Holocene" plays twice in the film, and has thereby become the go-to indie warble of Summer, 2014. It also appeared in one of the summer's worst films: Zach Braff's Wish I Was Here, which was even less watchable than The Judge's involuntary-poop scene.

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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