by Ken Carrell
TL;DR – In a film demanding some very subtly-nuanced performances from its two leads, Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall manage to perform magnificently in a compelling drama that yanks at your heartstrings and give you a few good gut-busting laugh-out-loud moments.
At the next Academy meeting, I plan to vote that David Dobkin only direct dramas from now on. Now, I’m not part of the Academy so I can’t do that. Also, that’s not how the Academy works…so we’ll just put a pin in that for now.
But I propose this idea because, while I did absolutely love Wedding Crashers, The Judge tops it out by far. Of course, Dobkin having only directed comedies (barring one drama/romance TV episode) he still had to pepper in some funny stuff and whoa nelly did he ever deliver on that. The opening scene is Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) in the bathroom using the *ahem* facilities, when opposing lawyer Mike Kattan (David Krumholtz) bursts in yelling his head off. So what does Tony Stark do? (Because I’m not convinced he switched characters from film to film quite yet) He pisses all over Kattan’s leg. This perfectly describes Hank Palmer: brash, abrasive, callous, arrogant, and hilarious to no end because we don’t have to put up his antics – we just get to watch them.
All joking aside, this is one of the best films of the year. When Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) receives a phone call that his mother dies, he heads back home for the funeral. Of course, a troubled childhood and relationship with his father explains the great deal of reluctance to doing it. Here, we meet his brothers, Dale (Jeremy Strong) and Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio). Dale, his autistic younger brother, is obsessed with creating home movies, always walking around and seeing the world through a viewfinder. Glen, his spineless older brother, is more focused on trying to kick everything wrong with the family dynamic under the rug than air it out in the open. We, of course, meet dear old dad, Joseph (Robert Duvall). When Joseph is accused of murder (in an interesting set-up that I won’t go into), Hank has to get off the plane and save the day.
The mix of personalities and characters are put together cleverly enough to always create a strong dynamic. Between the brothers, Hank’s old high school love Samantha (Vera Farmiga), the opposing lawyer in the murder trial Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thorton), hybrid lawyer/pawn shop salesman C. P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard), and a couple various others, there’s always something interesting happening in every scene. The most compelling scenes, however, by far, are the ones shared by Joseph and Hank.
Robert Squared (my affectionate nickname for our two leads), always give us a great deal of conflict at all times. Neither father nor son wants to forfeit the alpha dog façade at first and through the development of the court case and other things happening with Joseph (avoiding spoilers over here), both manage to soften their tough-guy exteriors over the course of the film. It’s a tough dynamic to sell, but with two actors as talented as these two, it’s convincing.
Some may not like the overt displays of drama that pop up in different scenes and that may be a result of Dobkin not having done a drama before, but they offer a moment of self-reflection for those of us that have ever had family drama of any kind. Dobkin, Nick Schenk, and Bill Dubuque managed to write in a good number of different relationships and dramatic tensions to make anyone sitting in the audience at some point say, “oh yeah, that happened to me.” Does the movie seem old-fashioned? Yeah, but I for one don’t see anything wrong with that. We got to see RDJ step out of the shoes of Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes and into something equally as fitting for his talent. And of course, Tom Hagen, *ahem* *cough cough* I mean, Robert Duvall, offers an equally compelling and layered performance (sorry, I couldn’t resist).
Final verdict: worth the watch. Go see it. A