The Judge - 'contrived, glib and cheerfully formulaic, but also strangely entertaining'
John Grisham didn't write the screenplay for The Judge, but he might as well have, because this is the kind of bloated, cliché-ridden courtroom saga that was ten-a-penny back in the 1990s.
Contrived, glib and cheerfully formulaic, David Dobkin's film veers between a rather plodding murder case and a much more interesting underlying family saga, and takes its time to tell a story that could have been trotted out in 90 minutes.
However, The Judge is also very funny at times, and strangely entertaining, mainly because it stars Robert Downey Jr.
He's up to his usual tricks here, talking too fast and outsmarting everyone else and behaving thoroughly obnoxiously, and his performance holds this ragged film together - just about - and makes Nick Schenk's screenplay look better than it is by finding humour in scenes where none was intended.
Henry 'Hank' Palmer is a smooth-talking, sharply dressed Chicago lawyer who's notorious for successfully defending the worst of criminals using a vast array of flashy courtroom tricks. He's in the middle of a case involving an embezzler when he hears that his mother has died.
Hank hails from smalltown Indiana, an idyllic-looking burg called Carlinville to be exact, and his contempt for the place is obvious as he roars into town to attend the funeral. He left in a huff 20 years previously, to escape Carlinville's provincial atmosphere and a dreadful relationship with his overbearing father, local judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall). At the burial service they hardly speak, and it is hammered home early and often that the reason father and son don't get on is because they're just too damned alike.
There are old grudges of course, chief among them a juvenile car crash involving Hank and his older brother, Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio), who was once a major baseball prospect. But basically, Hank and Joe can't agree on the time of day, and their bickering becomes a recurring theme that allows Downey and Duvall to chow down on the scenery. However, the pair are forced to suspend hostilities when the judge is arrested and accused of murder.
On the night his wife was buried, Joe is returning from a local convenience store when he hits and kills a cyclist on a country road. By a bizarre coincidence that troubles everyone, even his family, the dead man turns out to be a killer the judge once tried and has long despised.
There are bloodstains on his fender, and a garage security video shows him turning his car around to follow the victim. Things look grim, and the stubborn old judge at first won't let his hotshot lawyer son defend him. He relents, of course, and their rocky relationship will be sorely tested during a long and melodramatic trial.
In between shouting matches with his dad, Hank reconnects with his childhood sweetheart, Samantha (Vera Farmiga), who has weathered inordinately well and is still conveniently available. Hank's marriage is on the slide, but he has a young daughter to worry about and lots of big decisions to make.
Lots of things are going on at once in The Judge, and not all of them make sense. All the females, even Hank's cutesy daughter, are convenient cyphers invented purely to service the plot. Vincent D'Onofrio, a fine and often sidelined actor, is given little to do as Hank's aggrieved but kindly brother, and Billy Bob Thornton plays his prosecuting lawyer as a bland, fastidious villain.
But no matter, because this is the Robert Downey show, and not even Mr Duvall can survive in many scenes with him. And while the veteran actor does a decent job of making the ornery but secretly tender-hearted judge believable, he lives in the shadow of Downey Jr's loud and histrionic Hank.
Downey's so good at times that he makes The Judge a lot more fun than it has any right to be.