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Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall Chew Scenery in 'The Judge'

A strong cast fights a losing battle against subpar material in this ramshackle drama.

The Judge

Director: David Dobkin
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Leighton Meester, Dax Shepard, Emma Tremblay, Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, David Krumholtz
Rated: R
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-10-10 (General release)
UK date: 2014-10-17 (General release)

The Judge offers little that feels like an original movie. It has actors and dialogue, conflict and locations, but it's so vaguely familiar at every turn that watching it is like trying to decipher a blurred Xerox copy.

Hank Palmer In another of the slightly snoozy roles Robert Downey Jr. has been taking since Tony Stark first blasted into the sky over Afghanistan (The Soloist, Due Date). A motor-mouthed Chicago defense attorney doing his best to forget the small Indiana town where he grew up and the family he left behind, he prefers to subvert justice and piss on the law, as all defense lawyers in these sorts of stories do (his first act in the film is literally to urinate on the opposing counsel). On cue, Hank gets a call from home: Mom’s dead. He returns for the funeral, reunites with his charmingly eccentric family, and learns about the values he's ignored for so long.

Only that’s not all. After spending a little awkward time with his brothers Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong), Hank is all ready to zip back home to water his highly symbolic hydrangeas, finish divorcing his wife, and figure out how to raise his button-nosed moppet of a daughter (Lauren Palmer). Just before he leaves, his father, Judge Palmer (Robert Duvall) is charged with murdering a local druggie. This sets up for a standard courtroom drama, along with a cross-generational conflict. Frankly, the sight of the hyper-verbal Downey squaring off against the grounded Duvall might even make you think that The Judge will supremely enjoyable nonsense.

But like an overanxious TV pitchman, Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque’s screenplay can’t stop coming at you, shouting, "Wait, there’s more!" On top of this foundation, the piles on mysterious paternity, an unknown illness, a mentally challenged brother (that would be Dale, with his ever-present movie camera), and more backstory than your average miniseries. With all the secondary storylines and characters jostling for attention, director David Dobkin loses track of where the film might have started. Instead, it barrels towards thunderous legal and familial verdicts, lopped-off subplots and inconsistencies be damned.

Such disorder might have worked in the movie for which Dobkin is best known, Wedding Crashers, wherein he framed Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson at the peak of their bro-comic powers. His approach in The Judge is similarly broad, overselling every joke and sentimentalizing everything else. The overstatement isn't helped by Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, which lacquers every shot in a faux quality-film glow, forgetting that Indiana towns tend not to be surrounded by forested mountains.

It’s a shame, as most of the cast members put in great effort to elevate the dross they're handed. The expertly manic Downey looks annoyed as any old gunslinger might when forced to deploy his skills against the invariably dim-witted. You might call it showboating if he weren’t so superb at it. Vera Farmiga stretches out a depressingly rote and chauvinistic role, the sass-talking restaurateur and Hank's old girlfriend who just so happens to still be single and pining after him. Billy Bob Thornton goes quiet and mysterious to breathe life into his predictable prosecutor role. It appears that the makers knew when to stand back and give their remarkably A-list roster room to maneuver: if only that had been enough.


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