Even superheroes need to have a break from saving the world now and then, therefore it makes sense for Robert Downey Jr to take off his Iron Man suit and put on a court room one as he steps into the shoes of Henry ‘Hank’ Palmer, a smartass and high class lawyer from Chicago who doesn’t have a problem defending bad guys because ‘good ones can’t afford him’.
Hank’s world, however, turns upside down when he finds out that his mother passed away and he needs to go back to his hometown and have some family time with his estranged father Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) who also happens to be the local judge, and two brothers. Leaving his unfaithful wife – because Facebook ruins marriages! – and a daughter behind, Hank goes back to the town he grew up in where nothing seems to have changed over the years.
Including his complicated relationship with his father, apparently. The two seem to not be able to tolerate each other for more than a few minutes at a time, which makes Hank’s desire to get out of there as soon as he possibly can quite expected. Imagine Hank’s disappointment, however, when he has to postpone returning to his ordinary life when his father gets arrested on hit-and-run charges with the victim’s blood smeared all over the bumper of his car.
Contrary to our expectation, animosity between the two only grows stronger as the story progresses. The judge pointedly hires a much less competent lawyer to defend him in court just so that he wouldn’t have to ask his son for a favor and Hank pretends to go along with it, choosing not to escalate the conflict even more and claiming his father wouldn’t be able to afford him as a lawyer anyway.
The story of course would not be complete without reappearance of his high school sweetheart with a 20-year old daughter – who Hank hooks up with on his first night in town – who he suspects with belated horror could be his. No man is ever THAT bad at math!
As the court day approaches, Hank learns about his father’s progressive cancer and the reason why he can’t remember the events of the tragic night. Realizing that he might not have another chance, Hank tries to fix the things between the two of them, even summons his daughter from Chicago for the weekend to finally have her meet her grandfather.
They can’t, however, completely resolve everything that’s been broken between them just like Hank can’t save his father from prison no matter how much effort he puts into it. A few months later they’re reunited for a fishing trip, which ultimately leads to the judge’s peaceful death.
Speak of conflicted feelings, man!
On the one hand, The Judge is one hell of a film that manages to tackle several themes and do it quite brilliantly. On the other – it has so many subplots going on it could have successfully be cut in half and still be a raging success but without the extra ‘weight’ that does nothing to the main storyline.
Admittedly, my own expectations had been considerably fueled by all things Iron Man, therefore seeing Downey Jr in any film outside of MCU was… weird, to say the least. I mean if you’re not expecting him to start armoring up any moment, you’re doing it wrong – whatever you’re doing.
Anyway, it’s safe to say that the two Roberts owned the film, artfully portraying the dysfunctional father-son relationship, complicated by a whole lot of things. You may not be a fan of action genre but long before MCU, Downey Jr was known for his dramatic performances, which he seems to still be good at, it seems, switching between the asshole of a lawyer and a gentle and scared son who is about to lose his father, whatever their issues are. It’s interesting to see them slowly starting to give in and try to sort out their problems, what with them both being stubborn as hell.
This particular storyline, being the main one and all that, overshadows the rest of them by a mile. Both Downey Jr and Duvall are perfect when it comes to awkward dance around unresolved issues they’d rather ignore than talk about. I do, however, feel bad for the other two brothers that got little to no screen time, bearing little significance in the film. There’s a great deal of backstory going on but we get to hear about it only in passing.
Vera Farmiga, being Vera Farmiga, lightened up the film, bringing to life Hank’s high school ex who he, apparently, never stopped loving all those years, although I’ve got to admit that the related ‘is she/is she not my daughter’ question fueled by the possibility of incest in the beginning of the film was largely unnecessary and hardly made any difference to the main plot. With the film being over 2 hours long though, it could have and should have been cut if only for the sake of making it run shorter.
Billy Bob Thornton’s character was absolutely wasted seeing as how, despite the premise, we didn’t spend that much time in the court room. He had more potential than all the other secondary characters combines and yet the filmmakers chose not to go into this storyline much.
Overall, The Judge was a nicely done film about family conflicts most of us can relate to one way or another. Much like the majority of the dysfunctional family movies, it attempts tackling several problems at once, sadly, failing to succeed with addressing the majority of them. You’d think that with all the stories crammed into it, it’d be fast-paced. Instead, it feels dragging on occasion, having a somewhat slow start and a number of scenes that could have easily been removed for good.
Definitely recommend checking it out, especially if you’re a Robert Downey Jr fan.
And speaking of which, who’s excited about new Age of Ultron trailer?