It’s easy enough to imagine the pitch meeting that led to the creation of David Dobkin’s The Judge: simply picture someone, anyone, it doesn’t matter who, standing in front of a loose assembly of Hollywood brass, spouting off something like, “he’s a judge, but he’s about to be on trial.” You can almost hear the sighs. “But Robert Downey, Jr. wants to star in it.” Cue clapping, the signing of a budget (is this how Hollywood pitch meetings go? no, but go with it) and lots of big smiles. The Judge! He’s a judge, but he’s about to be on trial! With Robert Downey, Jr.! It’s a can’t-miss!
Dobkin’s film certainly has good intentions, shoehorning in an emotional redemption story alongside a standard “hey, maybe you really can go home again” tale and the kind of legal procedural that would only ever play out on the big screen, but the results are less than impressive. Fresh off a slowly diminishing streak of wacky comedies like Wedding Crashers, The Change-Up and Fred Claus, Dobkin attempts to go for something approaching sincerity and drama with The Judge, yet he can’t quite capture the right tone, and the film wings between light dramedy and genuinely upsetting family drama. A consistent interest in picking the most obvious choice possible at nearly every turn ultimately proves to be the film’s most egregious downfall.
We’re keenly aware that Downey’s Hank Palmer is an asshole the first time we meet him, mainly because he’s sporting a slick hairdo, a bad attitude and a lax regard for personal space (he pees on David Krumholtz, who is mostly confined to appearing in scenes in a bathroom, so it’s hard to fault Downey for his purposely terrible aim). A prolific defense attorney, Hank doesn’t care too much about the people he represents, even though he knows they’re mostly guilty (sample line of dialogue: “innocent people can’t afford me”). Hank’s putting on a big show (his home life isn’t as great as he makes it out to be), a snappy play at being confident and in control, the kind of work that Downey can do in his sleep. The news that his beloved mother has passed away temporarily unnerves him, and Hank is soon heading back to his tiny hometown to say goodbye.
It’s not a happy homecoming, mainly because everyone in cute lil Carlinville, Indiana appears to hate big city Hank, especially his cranky pop Joseph (Robert Duvall, playing the eponymous judge) and his older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio). It will soon become clear why they’re all so disdainful of the guy, but that doesn’t actually matter straight off, because the night after Mama Palmer’s funeral, Joseph hits and kills a bicyclist who just so happens to be a murderer he convicted years earlier. What’s to blame for Joseph’s hit and run? Vengeance? Justice? Grief? Or is it something else entirely?