As I drove to the screening of “The Judge” I thought to myself, “I’m not looking forward to another stubborn father/son relationship movie”. In fact, I wasn’t looking forward to seeing Robert Downey Jr. play Tony Stark minus the billions of dollars. Imagine my surprise when I viewed a movie about Tony Stark minus the billions of dollars that actually had heart!
Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is a big time Chicago lawyer who left behind the simple town he came from. When the death of his mother brings him back to Carlinville, Indiana, Hank has to face the demons he left behind. One particular demon being his father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), who has served as the town judge for the past 42 years. No matter what Hank has done that may impress most people, his father doesn’t seem to care. In fact, he doesn’t seem to care that he came back for the funeral outside of a handshake.
Once the funeral is over, Hank is ready to get on the next flight out of town, but a mysterious car accident involving the judge keeps him there. It seems the aging judge hit and killed Mark Blackwell (Mark Kiely), an ex-con that he let off easy that wound up committing murder soon after. With Judge Palmer’s memory on the fritz, a courtroom drama plays out with the judge being the on the other side of the fence and Hank choosing to stand by his father’s side. Amidst the trial, Hank also tries to tidy up his relationship with his father and loved ones.
There are plenty of great performances in the film. Robert Duvall will probably receive award nominations as the aging judge. Billy Bob Thornton plays the slick, and equally brilliant prosecuting attorney Dwight Dickham, who’s bent on getting Judge Palmer convicted. Vincent D’Onofrio is as real as it gets as the brother who stayed behind, and has the weight of the family at large on his shoulders. Vera Farmiga helps give us a heartfelt look into who Hank was before he left Carlinville as Hank’s ex-girlfriend Samantha. Robert Downey Jr. is a low budget Tony Stark in the film, but he does it so well that you wind up believing he’s Hank Palmer shortly after the film gets underway.
Regardless of its’ sappy overtones, there is something about “The Judge” that speaks to the human experience. Wether it’s family grudges, unforgiven history, or the inevitable certainty of death we all must face, this movie touches on it all. Stemming from personal experience, director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, Change-Up) does a great job of spearheading a universal story. Sure, it may be a little melodramatic in it’s handling of said topics, but it handles them in such a way that you automatically think about your own life experience while watching the film.
In lesser hands, “The Judge”, may not have worked. With a random heart to heart in the middle of a tornado scene, and a son who no matter how much he says he hates his father, keeps trying to please him, the film could easily derail into Hokeyville, USA. Fortunately, the combination of veteran actors come together to create a film that speaks to the human experience.