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The relationship between fathers and sons can be a complex affair, full of contradictory emotions. The push and pull of that bond is at the heart of the new family/courtroom drama The Judge. Co-writer/Director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers), makes the transition from broad comedies to earnest drama. The results are a mixed bag of tonal issues and extraneous elements in the narrative. Luckily for Dobkin, he has assembled a talented cast to do the heavy lifting.
Lawyer Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is the top defense lawyer in Chicago, with a specialty in getting white-collar criminals off the hook. Once the small town son of the revered town Judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall), Hank got out early and never looked back from the Indiana town he grew up in. He’d never planned on seeing his father again, but the death of his mother brings him home. His brothers Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong) are happy to see him, as is his former girlfriend Samantha (Vera Farmiga), but Joseph can’t seem to stand the sight of Hank, and the feeling is mutual. Hank is set to leave after a fight with his father, when Glen informs him that Joseph was involved in a hit and run and is being charged with murder. Joseph wants local attorney C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard) to defend him, but with high-profile prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) gunning for the Judge and C.P. in over his head, the family needs Hank on the case as well.
The movie has its heart in the right place, but the script by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque veers in too many directions and suffers from tonal inconsistencies of jumping between comedy and drama. The movie also suffers from a bloated running time of over two hours, which drags the pacing of the narrative. Dobkin could have trimmed the movie by thirty minutes and had a stronger effect on the proceedings. In addition, there are also a few too many subplots. One in particular, involving Leighton Meester, as a local bartender, goes in an unexpected and unnecessary direction. This portion of the story distracts from the main focus, which should be about the father and son relationship. The trial at the center of the plot is at first intriguing, but by the end becomes an afterthought in finding a proper conclusion. Luckily, what saves the movie are the performances by the main actors.
Downey and Duvall make an effective pair as father and son at odds with one another. Whenever the two are sparring and dealing with the wounds of their strained relationship, the movie is on solid ground. One wishes the movie would have honed its sole focus on this element, since they are the most effective scenes and allows the actors to connect emotionally. Unfortunately, the plot mechanics interfere with the characters being more fully explored. Farmiga is a welcome addition and does solid supporting work. Her chemistry with Downey is palpable, playful, and touching. She injects more into the character than what is presented in the script. I would love to see these two team up again because they have a natural rapport. Farmiga is able to match and keep up with Downey’s unpredictable presence.
In the middle of the messiness of the script, lies a great movie about fathers and sons. Unfortunately, the poor choices in the storytelling keep the movie from making a stronger impact. That being said, the skillful work by Duvall and Downey allow for moments of genuine emotion, which carries the movie through its many narrative bumps. The work by the talented actors merits the movie a slight recommendation.