If you closed your eyes for only a moment or two, you would have bet money — maybe a lot of it — that Robert Downey Jr. was once again playing Tony Stark.
The 49-year-old actor was in full-throttle "Iron Man" mode: riffing rapidly, almost cockily, in front of a dozen strangers. The topic was hardly momentous: what silly bumper stickers people slapped on their cars — "Wife and Dog Missing. Reward for Dog," read one. As he surveyed their adhesive slogans, Downey glibly chatted up the group as if he were a comedian warming up the house for a talk show.
For all the verbal gymnastics, the audience members were hardly there for good times: They were the jurors in a vehicular murder trial, and Downey's character, a Chicago lawyer named Hank Palmer, was representing a client he had come to despise: his own father. The bumper stickers were Palmer's way of selecting a jury that gave him a fighting chance.
Trying to defend an aging parent (played by Robert Duvall) whose memory is failing and who has little regard for his son's theatrical legal flourishes was only a part of Downey's challenges on this Massachusetts stage last summer.
Equally demanding, existing as a subtext just below the day's scenes, was what the actor was trying to set free on a more personal level: his own on-screen persona.
Opening Oct. 10 after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, "The Judge" represents a departure not only for Downey — who produced the movie with his wife, Susan, as their company's debut feature — but also for the film's director, David Dobkin.
The 45-year-old filmmaker arrived in Hollywood in the 1990s determined to make movies like "Dog Day Afternoon," only to become one of the town's top comedy directors, largely owing to 2005's "Wedding Crashers." Like an actor who finds himself typecast in certain roles, Dobkin labored to land different directing assignments.
His success in comedy became an albatross, he said. "I was still following a path of, 'I have to succeed. I have to succeed.' And I thought, 'If I nail one more big one [after "Wedding Crashers"] then I will be OK." But he struggled to cast 2011's "The Change-Up" with top actors (the leads were played by Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman), and when the movie was a critical and commercial dud, he figured the time was right to change priorities. "At that point, I thought high-concept comedy was not something I wanted to step back into."
As it turned out, comedy was always a little foreign to Dobkin. "I don't have a funny bone," he said. But making a drama felt natural. "This was the easiest movie I've ever made. This is my background. This is what I understand."
A new path
When Dobkin's mother passed away several years ago, "The Judge," along with a new career path for him and Downey, was born.
Dobkin admits that he and his mother had a "very complicated" relationship. "We didn't get along for many, many years," he said. In helping care for her as she died, he was humbled by the role reversal and started contemplating the idea of estrangement and reconciliation.
As he continued to process the experience, the roughest outlines of "The Judge" began to form (Dobkin shares a story credit with Nick Schenk, with the screenplay written by Schenk and Bill Dubuque). "It started to take shape as the kind of movie I always loved as a kid — I loved 'Kramer vs. Kramer' and 'Ordinary People' and those kind of movies."
As the film begins, Hank Palmer is a seemingly invincible Chicago lawyer. "Innocent people can't afford me," he boasts of his amoral compass.
Judged by the standard yardsticks of American achievement, Palmer has it all: A Ferrari in the driveway and a trophy wife in the Highland Park mansion. The external markers of his success scarcely hide the poverty of his personal life. Palmer's wife is leaving him, and when his mother dies, he reluctantly returns for her funeral, parachuting into a small Indiana town from which he's been long gone and forgotten.
Palmer's mother was the glue that held the clan together, and into the breach arrives a big-city litigator with more than a fractured family to repair. The elder Palmer is a judge who's been on the bench for 42 years and whose health is failing. What's more, the scales of justice now hold sway over his future: The judge may have been deliberately responsible for the fatal hit-and-run of a bicyclist, but even as the jurist disdains his own offspring, Hank might be his one shot at freedom.
The movie's mystery, put another way, isn't just focused on what happened on a dark stretch of highway. It's how father and child have grown so far apart so irreparably.
"I'm not his son," the younger Palmer says matter-of-factly. "I'm his lawyer."
The film's appeal
During a break inside a Boston-area warehouse converted into the Indiana courtroom set, Robert and Susan Downey said they fell in love with "The Judge" while Robert was recovering from an ankle injury sustained while making "Iron Man 3."
Part of what appealed to them at the outset was the film's recognition of small-town values — "that they are truly noble and worth preserving," Robert said.
But they both recognized another appeal: the chance for Robert to play a character whose fast-talking patter was a mask, not a gift. "Emotionally, he is extremely congested," Robert said. As Susan put it: "This character was always perfectly suited for Robert."
In fact, Dobkin said he never considered anyone else for the part and specifically talked with Robert about using the audience's familiarity with the actor's manner as an anchor to the character.
"Absolutely," Dobkin said. "There was a consciousness to take Robert as he is known as a celebrity and as he is known in his most famous role — which is Tony Stark — and start with someone that everyone identifies with him as. And then to take that persona and put them through the rigors of having to change and shift and become a different man."
While it's not entirely new territory for Downey — he has played meatier roles in "The Soloist" and "Wonder Boys," among others — the actor says it was nevertheless demanding.
"I didn't know what I was doing for a while," he said. "This has been by a long shot the most cerebral thing I've ever had to do, because I'm not out there throwing kicks. It's all between my ears."