Too handsome, too witty, too debonair – Robert Downey Jr. could never be mistaken for an everyman. His most memorable roles – as Tony Stark, action Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chaplin, even Kirk Lazarus in “Tropic Thunder” – have Downey flying through the air, jumping out of windows, and, most improbably, donning blackface without (too much) controversy. Plus, he’s got charisma like the Sahara’s got sand.
Downey and his wife Susan evidently recognize his super-guy status, which is why, as the producers of “The Judge,” they gave his character a backstory not unlike Clark Kent’s. Hank Palmer (Downey) is a small-town boy from the Midwest who moves to the big city to utilize his superpowers, which in his case are helping guilty criminals beat the system and getting rich for it.
“The Judge” is tailor-made for Downey’s gift for delivering a quippy, arrogant put-down like he’s doing his target a favor. Hank’s anti-heroism is a refreshing splash of lemon juice with an occasional spritz of sour vinegar. But much of director David Dobkin‘s cynically cloying legal and family drama goes down like a lump of aspartame.
After the death of his mother, Hank returns home to suburban Indiana (or in his words, “the corn belt [and a] Bible-banging backwater”). Having planned to stay no longer than overnight, he finds a reason for an extended visit when his crusty father, the respected Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), is accused of being behind the wheel in a fatal hit-and-run. A spot of blood on the magistrate’s car matches that of the victim, but Joseph has little memory of that night due to the amnesiac side effects of a medical treatment.
Few thumb their noses at authority with more rascal charm than Downey, and thus this star vehicle gives him a trio of obstinate adversaries to play against. Joseph in particular proves a fascinating foe, a smart example of how a man might be unfailingly virtuous without ever being kind. The old man initially chooses an inexperienced bumpkin (Dax Shepard) to represent him in court, declaring that his city-slicker son has too little respect for the law.
Hank immediately regresses into a heartbroken teenager in his father’s snooty presence, and the excavation of emotional injuries (Hank hasn’t gotten over the fact that his father didn’t attend his law-school graduation; Joseph doesn’t think not dropping out is all that worthy of praise) goes a long way in convincingly establishing a history of disappointments and resentments between father and son.
Their locked horns give way to one of the film’s most poignant scenes, when Hank finds his father in the bathroom straining to reach the toilet before rising vomit reaches his lips. Shortly thereafter, Joseph soils his pants (and not with pee). As naturally repulsive as it is to see bodily fluids on screen, it’s a rare moment of honesty from studio filmmaking about the ravages of old age and illness. As slick and as predictable as “The Judge” can be, it evinces an admirable sense of physical desire and frailty.
Billy Bob Thornton cuts a less intimidating figure as Hank’s opponent in the courtroom, a prosecutor afflicted with the same unyielding sense of fairness as Joseph. Dressed in somber but natty three-piece suits, Dwight Dickham (Thornton) looks more like a bank manager attending a funeral than an overworked government employee.
While “The Judge” is ludicrously reverential toward the courts (Joseph calls it America’s “last great cathedral” and we’re meant to agree with him), the legal battle is badly paced and saddled with silly clichés, like over-the-top gasps from onlookers whenever a new piece of evidence is introduced. Thornton’s presence thus feels neutered – a too-easy win for Downey.
As much as the film relies on the Hank/Downey charm, it retains a skepticism of its best asset, especially when it comes to women. Downey’s scenes with a relaxed, lightly tragic Vera Farmiga, playing the one that got away, are a master class in rueful sexiness. “Stop staring. I know I look good,” teases Farmiga’s Samantha, and we feel an immediate pang for Hank because that’s impossible to do.
In the film’s most daring (and miscalculated) storyline, Hank learns that the teenage bartender he makes out with on the first day home is Sam’s daughter – and that he may be the father. It’s a nasty little subplot that feels unnecessary, particularly when Hank’s (other?) daughter (Emma Tremblay) condemns his reckless way with women so succinctly: “Daddies don’t get lonely. They just marry younger mommies.”
“The Judge” is often a compellingly melancholy study of the aftereffects of abandonment – by children from parents, by boyfriends from girlfriends, by successful dreamers from family responsibilities. Disappointingly, then, it has “Will it play in Peoria?” written all over it, from the naïve odes to our legal system to the Windows 2000 wallpaper-like images of the rural Midwest as eternal meadows of emerald and saffron.
When Hank inevitably comes around on Indiana, shouting, “I’m from here!” with more than a bit of hometown pride, it feels like nothing more than Robert Downey Jr. singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” winking with a mischievous glint in his eye.