September 4, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto 2014 Review: “The Judge”


THE JUDGE (Warners) – Opens October 10 – Watch It At Home

Since the first Iron Man opened, Robert Downey Jr. has been one of the world’s biggest (and wealthiest) stars.  But he hasn’t used his superpowers for good:  in the 6 years that have followed, he’s interspersed Tony Stark extravaganzas only with entries in the even dumber Sherlock Holmes franchise and the buddy comedy Due Date.  His only “serious” role in that time was playing second fiddle (almost literally) to Jamie Foxx in The Soloist.  So it’s a pleasure to see him flex his normal-human-being muscles in THE JUDGE, which opened the 2014 Toronto Film Festival tonight, even if the movie is just a John Grisham knockoff mixed with The Great Santini.

Downey and his wife are producers of The Judge, and they’ve been careful to keep things very much in his comfort zone.  He plays Hank Palmer, the slickest Chicago defense attorney to don a designer suit and sunglasses that cost as much as your car.  Hank seemingly has no conscience and no principles, but before very long he’s summoned back to his Indiana hometown, at first for a brief, pro forma visit because his mother has passed away, and then forced to hang around when his father, the venerable Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), is arrested for a vehicular homicide the night of the funeral–a hit and run that Hank’s father says he doesn’t remember, but whose victim is someone he had a motive to kill.  Father and son practically spit fire at each other when they’re forced to sit in the same room, so it’s only a matter of time before the Judge has to reluctantly hire Hank to defend him.

What follows is more of a legal soap than a showcase for courtroom theatrics; The Judge could serve very well as the pilot for a TV procedural.  Hank will need to Become A Better Person, both through finally working out his issues with his stern father, and in his relationships with his brothers, the older sibling one-time college pitching sensation Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), and slow Dale (Jeremy Strong), who’s constantly filming people with an old 8mm camera.  There’s also first love Samantha (Vera Farmiga), who’s never forgotten Hank, and Hank’s cute as all blazes little daughter, Lisa (Sarah Lancaster), who only wants to spend more time with her busy pop.

Very little in the script by Nick Schenck and Bill Dubuque comes as a surprise, even the supposed “twists.”  The story becomes more and more sentimental as it goes along.  But director David Dobkin (known until now for comedies, especially The Wedding Crashers) keeps things moving briskly despite the 140-minute length, and most importantly, he stays out of the way of his very fine cast.  Duvall, like Downey, is playing a role he could probably perform perfectly well under medication.  Nevertheless, this is the most substantial part the 83-year old Duvall has had since Get Low in 2009, and he and Downey are marvelous together, pros who know every step of their characters’ dance of hostility, regret and grudging respect.

While the movie belongs to its two leads, there are juicy bits for just about everyone in the supporting cast, not just D’Onofrio, Strong and Farmiga (for once not playing a character tight with neuroses), but Billy Bob Thornton, who as the trial’s prosecutor demonstrates the art of stealing scenes without breaking a sweat (he has a sight-gag involving a collapsible cup that’s a thing of beauty), Dax Shepard as the Judge’s woeful first choice of attorney, and Leighton Meester as a local barmaid who’s more closely connected to Hank than he’d imagined.

Although a film festival berth is usually meant as a signal of awards ambitions, The Judge is more of a satisfying small-screen potboiler with an A-list cast than a film worthy of high honors (unless the Academy decides it wants to bestow a valedictory award on Duvall).  As evidence of Robert Downey’s willingness to start acting again without CG support, though, it’s an encouraging event.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."