Robert Downey Jr. knows a thing or two about second chances. After nearly throwing away a lucrative career to alcohol and drugs that landed him in a rehab prison, his future prospects looked dead in the water. But what he learned from those mistakes allowed him to clean himself up and return to the spotlight with a stronger will and a clearer mind. He started small in some independent films and supporting roles to help rebuild his reputation in hopes of finding a public that would forgive his past sins. And forgive they did as they helped him jump start a new revolution in film with the success of Iron Man and the Marvel cinematic universe. To capitalize on this good fortune, Downey Jr. (and more to the point, his wife and producing partner, Susan Downey) has now turned to producing a film all about forgiveness and second chances in the dreary familial courtroom drama, The Judge.
Downey Jr. plays Hank Palmer, an arrogant defense attorney that is so high on his own skills, the inability to try a case or, God forbid, lose a case, is worse than going through withdrawals. It’s the same type of character Downey Jr has played several times over, and like a lot of those characters, Hank’s conceited attitude stems from a broken past that he believes must be suppressed because it would otherwise make him appear weak. It’s a defense mechanism that he wants no part in tearing down, so when his mother passes away, returning home becomes more a respectful obligation for his mother’s sake than a sincere act of contrition.
Robert Duvall plays the title character, Joseph Palmer, a judge for forty some-odd years in his small hometown of Carlinville, Indiana. Joseph, like his son, has buried his anger deep down, refusing to let forgiveness guide them into reconciliation. The animosity between Hank and Joseph is evident in how they treat each other; the only reason they even shake hands is to put on a show for the mourners at the wake. At the same time, they are family, and that love still remains somewhere deep in the recesses of their hearts.
Downey Jr. and Duvall are a terrific pair, sharing so many secrets, so much pain and regret, and so much respect with each other without ever having to say a word. But when they do, no matter if it’s a quiet moment of realization, one of them opening up about something they were afraid to talk about, or exploding in vitriol toward the other, it’s absolutely electric. One scene that shows this dynamic at play is an uneasy sequence in the bathroom. Even after falling and having an accidental bowel movement, Joseph is so intent on doing everything on his own, he is unwilling to accept his son’s help. But Hank is as equally stubborn, unwilling to leave him alone because the man is in serious pain. Eventually, Joseph succumbs to his son’s help, and not once does Hank ever make him feel embarrassed about his stage four colon cancer, which Joseph has kept hidden in order to remain on the bench — a need that gets threatened when he’s accused of voluntary vehicular manslaughter.
Hank immediately wants to defend Joseph for this act, doing everything he can to find a defense that will sway a jury to find him inncent. Joseph, of course, refuses at first, choosing to go with C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard), a young local attorney who also owns a local bookstore. But after C.P. can’t keep the trial from going in front of a jury, Joseph knows he has to swallow his pride and allow his son to do his job. Staying true to form, Hank claims he’s only going to take the case because he needs more pro bono hours.
I was a little disappointed by the lack of courtroom sequences, not to mention David Dobkin’s odd direction of these particular scenes. I realize the case is simply the vehicle that drives the story of Hank reconnecting with his family and coming to terms with his past, but Dobkin misses the chance to use that vehicle to his advantage, rather than as a crutch. There are several elements outside of the courtroom, including the subplots involving Hank’s old high school girlfriend, Samantha Powell (Vera Farmiga), and his young daughter Lauren (Emma Tremblay), that could have been shortened or cut altogether simply because they don’t really go anywhere, are repetitive, or because the lessons learned are conveyed in other ways already. However, Downey Jr. does work really well with kids, and his scenes with Tremblay are some of the funner moments in the film, so to lose her may have also been a mistake.
But that’s the rub here. The movie is nearly two and a half hours long, and with so much ground to cover, something had to be reduced. The decision to condense the courtroom scenes, though, deprives us of the strong chemistry between Downey Jr. and Billy Bob Thornton as Dwight Dickham, the just as sly, just as cunning prosecuting attorney who has his own demons he’s trying to dispel by taking on this case against Hank. Dobkin tries to heighten the “importance” of the courtroom drama by using a lot of sweeping shots that make it feel as if they came from a completely different movie instead of letting the powerful script speak for itself. I mean, the final couple of scenes in court are so emotionally resonant, you have to wonder how a little more time spent inside those walls might have helped strengthen the relationship between Hank and Joseph more than some of the repetitive family moments that at times can only buffer the uneven pace of film.
It’s the tone, though, that hurts the film the most. The screenplay is extremely negative, which makes it rather depressing. There are several lighter moments sprinkled throughout, including Downey Jr.’s own droll personality, a subplot between Samantha’s daughter, Carla (Leighton Meester), and Hank, who may or may not be her biological father, and almost any moment that includes Hank’s younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong), a slightly mentally handicapped young man without a filter. But they are so scattered that they are quickly outweighed by the darker, more tragic material.
Some may not be able to get past this aspect of the film, which is a shame, because if you are able to overcome this and find the true heart of the story, you’ll find a remarkable character study about members of a broken family all looking for some type of redemption that none aren’t willing to admit to. To heal the wounds of their past, they need to find a way to be honest with each other, but they can’t do that until they are honest with themselves. Only then can forgiveness allow for a second chance at unlocking the happiness in the lives around them.
My Grade: A-
Next week, new movies include The Best of Me, The Book of Life and Fury. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.