Films about father-son relationships have always been an intriguing prospect for movie-makers as well as film-going audiences. These movies have the power to draw in large crowds and garner critical acclaim, such as “Big Fish,” “There Will Be Blood,” “Road to Perdition” and “The Godfather,” just to name a few. This being true, when I heard that there was going to be a film with heavyweight actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall portraying an estranged son and father respectively, I nearly had a stroke from excitement. Then, when I saw that the film was getting a 48 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the same stroke was coming from anxiety.
“The Judge” is a film by David Dobkin, the previous director of movies like “Fred Claus” and “Wedding Crashers.” The movie’s plot centers around Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.), a successful lawyer, who must go home to Illinois when his mother dies. His plans change, however, when his father Joseph (Duvall), the town’s judge, is suspected of murder. This core plot of the film is as solid as any — likely due to the fact that it has already been used as the foundation of many other courtroom dramas — engaging the audience not only in a family drama, but nurturing their desire to know the truth at the root of the mystery: Did Judge Palmer really kill somebody he had failed to sentence?
Strong as the initial plot is, the weakest points of the film also come out of the film’s interweaving storylines. Early on, it is established that Hank’s marriage is past the point of no return, and that his relationship with his young daughter (Emma Tremblay) is struggling. Additionally, there is a romantic subplot introduced around Hank’s former girlfriend Samantha Powell (Vera Farmiga), whom he left in Illinois when he went to school to become a lawyer. There’s also a subplot about Hank’s antagonistic relationship with the prosecuting lawyer in his father’s case (played by Billy Bob Thornton). On top of this, Hank has to deal with family guilt over an accident he caused in the past. Also, there is a subplot in the film where Hank fears that he may have engaged in incest. Can you tell that this movie is far too busy?
Setting aside many of the unnecessary side plots and the overlong two-and-a-half-hour runtime, this movie has a solid foundation. Although the core plot is somewhat cliched, Downey Jr. and Duvall’s performances are enough to raise this movie above itself. The shared scenes between the father and son characters swing between heartbreaking and beautiful, as Duvall is not only one of the strongest actors in Hollywood, but is acting alongside Downey Jr., who is arguably charismatic enough to read a phonebook and make it interesting.
The supporting cast is unbelievably strong as well, showing off the talents of Farmiga, Thornton, Vincent D’Onofrio and a few others. Every actor proves themselves capable of holding their own, even when starring alongside a living legend like Duvall, and there is hardly a weak performance to be found. However, the acting seems to serve as a smokescreen, every actor disguising a movie with a B-grade plot through thoroughly A-grade acting.
“The Judge,” though cliched in its storyline, is held above its subpar writing through tour de force acting, and an effort put into each performance that it likely did not deserve. While I can’t suggest a full-price ticket for this movie, the passion injected into each character deserves a matinee or a rental once it leaves theaters. By sheer force of acting, this movie is one of the few that can nonsensically be described as “being better than it is.”
Rating: 3.5 stars