Everyone - and I mean everyone- knows the Judge. He's ruled this podunk county for what seems like hundreds of years.
But now, he's at the center of a smalltown murder case. And there's only one attorney fit to defend him.
"The Judge", director David Dobkin's latest brainchild, stars a duo of Roberts – the ever-popular superstar Robert Downey Jr., and the seasoned veteran Robert Duvall. Two different generations of Hollywood serve as father and son, attempting to bridge the year-long gap between them through the courtroom.
Downey Jr. plays celebrated lawyer Hank Palmer, whose mother’s sudden death takes him back to rural Indiana, where his father Joseph (Robert Duvall) is the town’s judge. So well-known he is that townsfolk need only call him “the Judge."
Yet Hank loathes both the setting and the company of his family, including brothers – the eldest Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and the younger Dale (Jeremy Strong). Itching to escape the pastures and denim overalls, Hank is forced to ditch his plane when he learns the judge is accused of murder. The Judge’s best option: be defended by his resentful son.
And in the (legal) process and ensuing family drama, Hank’s going to learn more about the Judge in a few weeks than he has in a lifetime.
The film’s strength lies in its intricate complexity; this small-time town ironically harbors more history, relationships, and meaning for Hank than does his rich-guy abode. His savvy daughter Lauren (Emma Tremblay), in fact, is his sole joy in the big city. But the countryside offers his distanced family, his former sweetheart Samantha (Vera Farmiga) and a sexy barkeep (Leighton Meester). Even the Judge goes through more than his stout demeanor lets on, and that sexy bartender is closer to Hank than he’d like to know. With every passing day in the countryside, a layer peels back in the satisfyingly rich story of the Palmer family drama.
And the comedy! Of course, a movie starring Downey Jr. in his prime features his signature attitude and quotable one-liners. Comedy is certainly not lost on the rest of the cast either, with Dale contributing some of the movie's funniest moments. Humor enhances the many storylines threaded throughout without cheapening the movie’s dramatic atmosphere.
As satisfyingly rich and complex as a novel, “The Judge” wastes none of its 141 minutes. It is a sentimental, heartfelt portrait of family life, and as two Roberts expertly demonstrate, family will always be around in the long run; and what is discovered within can change a life.
But not without laughs, and certainly not without tears.
This article originally appeared in Neon Tommy on October 2, 2014.