A certain classic streak of moralistic hokum underlines David Dobkin’s extra-long courtroom drama The Judge. The story of Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.), a slick lawyer who travels home to bury his mother and defend his judge father, Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), on charges of vehicular manslaughter, might have interested Frank Capra or John Ford in its depiction of small-town community and familial rifts. But the end result is more akin to a preachy John Grisham knock-off, one that spends well over two hours trying to clear the air among a family of stubborn, self-important, upper-middle-class white men.
The script, by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, begins by making hay out of Hank’s reckless ego and lack of morals, as he’s all too happy to defend the rich and corrupt, and brag about his wife with the “ass like a high school volleyballer.” In reality, he’s getting divorced and waiting to hear about custody of his daughter, Lauren (Emma Tremblay), when news of his mother’s passing brings him home to Carlinville, Indiana. Mom’s death is only the first layer of narrative bedrock that roots Hank’s journey in petty grudges, from the car accident that grounded the promising baseball career of his older brother, Glenn (Vincent D’Onofrio), to suddenly ditching Sam (Vera Farmiga), his ex-flame and current proprietor of a local diner. These gripes ultimately pale in comparison to Hank’s charge of defending his father when Joseph is arrested for running over a former defendant, a crime he doesn’t remember due to chemo treatments. In Dobkin’s view, Hank’s trip home doubles as a tour of atonement.
Coming from the director of Wedding Crashers, The Judge has the distinct timbre of a feigned bid at artistic and emotional maturity. Though billed as tough but inherently good characters, Hank and Joseph come off as two emotionally manipulative borderline sociopaths who use their talents for debate to hurt one another, which might have been interesting if the film wasn’t so sentimentally inclined and quick to forgive Joseph’s myriad trespasses. The film goes to lengths to show off its wealth of supporting characters, from Dale (Jeremy Strong), Hank’s slow little brother, to C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard), a young lawyer who helps Hank out, but they largely work to reiterate and support the unsteady central feud. Billy Bob Thornton’s Dwight Dickham, the prosecutor in Joseph’s case, is hardly characterized by more than the metallic collapsible cup that he carries around.
The immense amount of backstory stalls out all present action and loads every exchange with preposterous amounts of emotional baggage. Every conversation seems to call back to some tremendous trauma, and when it comes to the film’s comedic elements, it’s only downhill from Hank calling Glenn “semen breath.” Dobkin never seems to decide on what kind of film he’s making and this atonalism is felt most strongly in the overtly sincere depictions of dealing with a family member with diminished capacities. At one point, Hank must help clean Joseph up after he’s vomited and soiled himself and Dobkin is careful to show the grim realities of invalidism, complete with the image of watery shit running down Duvall’s leg. It’s meant to convey the debasement and helplessness of growing old, but no other element of the story is allowed this sense of ugly yet honest visual articulation. The entire sequence comes off as an aggressive ploy to endear Joseph to the audience, and the same goes for his inevitable reunion with his granddaughter.
If there are brief flickers of thrilling discourse between Downey and Duvall, they’re barely memorable among the long stretches of bland reminiscing, stale nostalgia, and sexual inappropriateness, such as when Hank shrugs off groping and making out with his niece, not long before making out with her mom. Dobkin shows similar indifference to anything but Hank’s unlikely, trying devotion to his father, a tortured paternalism that feels more confused than genuinely complex. Underneath the extensive noise, The Judge is one long trial of moral duty, one that excuses repugnant behavior and psychological warfare in lieu of a repetitive, condescending sermon on honoring thy father, even at the expense of ignoring the thoughts and feelings of everyone else around you.