Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. are not only the boldface names attached to "The Judge," but their powerful symbiotic acting is the key reason to see this film.
Playing an unapologetically estranged father and son whose two-way contempt runs so deep they can barely look at each other, Duvall and Downey create a memorable mutual antipathy with echoes that go back as far as Raymond Massey squaring off against James Dean in "East of Eden."
However, as directed by David Dobkin from a script by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, this vivid and volatile core is often undercut by a weakness for middle-of-the-road sentiment and a desire to be all things to all people.
Part Oedipal family saga, part courtroom drama, all old-school entertainment, "The Judge" wants to be the first serious film by a director best known for such comedies as "The Wedding Crashers," "The Change-Up" and "Shanghai Knights." But crowd-pleasing tendencies honed over a decade of Hollywood work can be hard habits to break.
Still, however unwieldy the final result, Dobkin and company deserve credit for helping Duvall and Downey create vibrant, dramatic characters that involve the performers in rousing, stem-winder ways.
After playing Iron Man in four movies (with another "Avengers" due out next year) and Sherlock Holmes in two, it's Downey who benefits most obviously from a change of pace, from having the chance to do something that reminds us that superhero arias are not the only notes he can reach.
Downey's Hank Palmer starts out as someone Tony Stark could love or even potentially hire. A slick, too-smart-for-his-own-good Chicago uber-lawyer, Palmer can be counted on to deliver the best verdict money can buy. "Innocent people can't afford me" is the mantra of a man who glibly proclaims "everyone wants Atticus Finch until there's a dead hooker in the hot tub."
But behind the facade of a fancy house, expensive Ferrari and even costlier trophy wife, things are about to get more complicated for Palmer. Amid typical legal shenanigans, he gets a phone call telling him his mother has died, a phone call that drags him back to Carlinville, Ind., the place he hasn't set foot in since he left 20 years earlier.
A bucolic albeit fictional hamlet (filming was done in Shelburne Falls, Mass.), Carlinville hasn't changed much in years, which is one reason Palmer hasn't been back. That and a whole raft of buried family secrets and unfinished emotional business.
Palmer's brothers, former athlete Glen (the always welcome Vincent D'Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong), the innocent with a touch of Asperger's, are still in town and are troubled by his long absence. Old girlfriend Samantha (a luminous Vera Farmiga) is also around, and she has her issues as well.
Towering above everyone in terms of influence and the buttons he pushes for Palmer is a father even he calls Judge.
On the bench for 42 years, the elderly jurist, exceptionally played by Duvall, is very much the law in these parts, a mean snake who is fanatical about everything on and off the bench, even which direction cars are going to be parked in his driveway.
Palmer, never one to mince words, insists "this family's a Picasso painting," and he doesn't mean that in a good way. The attorney is determined to leave as soon as his mother's funeral is over, but, no surprise here, circumstances conspire to keep him in town.
What happens is this: The judge goes for a late-evening drive on a rainy night and ends up hitting and killing a man with his immaculate 1973 Cadillac Coupe DeVille. Not just some random individual but an ex-convict the judge has had a particularly fraught relationship with. Was it an accident? Was it murder? The judge, who's been having memory problems lately, simply does not remember what happened.
Obviously, what the judge needs most is a good defense attorney, especially after the state appoints black-clad Dwight Dickham (wonderfully played with a Lucifer-like intensity by Billy Bob Thornton) to be special prosecutor in the case.
Given the situation, hiring his son should be a no-brainer for the judge, but if you think that's the case you haven't been paying attention. The judge wants someone local, "someone with integrity," and he fights his son's attempts to help every step of the way. And, at 2 hours, 21 minutes, this film has room for lots and lots and lots of steps.
Given the Hollywood nature of this production, including high-gloss cinematography by Janusz Kaminski and an over-emphatic score by Thomas Newman, softening plot elements are inevitable. The problem here is not that they exist but that they feel so overly familiar, especially when they contrast with the honesty of the lead actors.
Though Downey is excellent, the 83-year-old Duvall is the standout here. The judge may sound like a standard-issue autocrat, but Duvall, who had to be talked into the role by his wife and his agent, makes more of it than perhaps even he anticipated.
Convincing playing an unadulterated despot as well as when he dials down the confrontations, without vanity in his willingness to portray the physical humiliations of aging, Duvall relishes being a force to contend with, as for that matter does Downey. Yes, "The Judge" could have been a better film, but these two provide real and compelling reasons to see the one we have.
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MPAA rating: R for language, including some sexual references.
Running time: 2 hours, 21 minutes.