In a nutshell, The Judge is those moments in Robert Downey Jr. movies where he’s serious for a second stretched out to a whopping 141 minutes. The running time isn’t noticeable thanks to sharp turns from Downey Jr. and the 83-year-old Duvall.
Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.) has made a good living defending bad people. When he returns home for his mother’s funeral he confronts a past he’s done everything to escape: estranged father Joseph (Duvall), the respected judge of title who is beginning to lose his memory, a bitter brother (D’Onfrio), and an ex (Farmiga) whom he skipped out on. When Joseph is accused of knocking down and killing a man he once gave a life sentence to, Hank offers his services but bullish dad wants someone with integrity to defend him...
Nick Schnek (Gran Torino) and Bill Dubuque’s screenplay is one that’s going to be flagged as an example of tight structure in future classes. Developments happen exactly when they are supposed to, reversals and twists right on the button. It might be predictable but it’s engaging stuff. But the writers do work hard at areas that could have been really creaky.
Loaded with a giant backstory, the writers get around scenes of clunky exposition by having Hank’s intellectually disabled brother (Jeremy Strong) ask the innocent questions no one would. Careful not to overdo that, they then have Hank’s daughter (Emma Tremblay) show up to ask more awkward questions and teach Hank to be a better dad, which helps Hank understand his own father. It’s cute writing but nothing’s cuter than Dax Shepard’s lawyer who vomits when he’s emotionally engaged with his client, which, of course, is exactly what happens to the emotionally distant Hank later. The journey might be Screenwriting 101 but it’s effective and touching.
But because of its strict adherence to the ABC of writing The Judge is overloaded with unneeded but crowd-pleasing moments. There was potential to explore D’Onfrio’s backstory, and the dynamic between the brothers but because there has to be a love interest this screentime is usurped by the go-nowhere romantic subplot with Farmiga and Leighton Meester. Another distraction is Billy Bob Thornton’s flash prosecutor, who turns up but then slides into the background; his notice-me introductory scene and constant presence suggests he’s going to play a big part but no.
The Billy Bob issue is indicative of The Judge’s problems - it looks like it’s going to be a big deal only to be a smaller deal - but David Dobkin’s (Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus and The Change-Up) cobbles together an engaging court drama for the most part.