[Screen It]


(2014) (Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall) (R)

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Drama: A hotshot defense lawyer returns to his childhood home to attend his mother's funeral, only to discover that his estranged father, the town's judge, is suspected of murder.
Hank Palmer (ROBERT DOWNEY JR.) is a slick Chicago defense attorney who's an expert at defending his high-end criminal clients in court, much to the chagrin of Mike Kattan (DAVID KRUMHOLTZ), his prosecutor counterpart. Yet, things aren't perfect for him, what with his wife having recently cheated on him, thus leaving the decision about who will get custody of their 7-year-old daughter, Lauren (EMMA TREMBLAY), up in the air.

It gets worse when Hank gets word that his mother has died, and thus he returns to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana, a place he hasn't been for years. Despite their mutual loss, Hank and his father, Joseph (ROBERT DUVALL) -- the town's well-respected judge for the past 42 years -- maintain their cold estrangement, while Hank also reunites with his older brother, Glen Palmer (VINCENT D'ONOFRIO) -- a one-time highly regarded baseball prospect who now runs a tire and rim shop -- and their younger sibling, Dale (JEREMY STRONG), a slightly mentally impaired man who always has his old film camera in hand.

As soon as the funeral is done, Hank's back on a plane, but an emergency call from Glen cuts that short. It appears their father has been charged with murder, specifically that of a former suspect he didn't throw the book at and who then returned to kill a 16-year-old girl years ago. That man has been found dead, with his blood on Joseph's car. The only thing is that the judge can't remember the incident, a result of him undergoing medical treatment.

That isn't something he wants brought up in court, one of many points of frustration for Hank once he begrudgingly decides to defend his father after Joseph's initial lawyer, C.P. Kenney (DAX SHEPARD), proves less than competent to head up the defense. And that's a big deal since out-of-town prosecutor Dwight Dickham (BILLY BOB THORTON) is determined to prove the death was premeditated in the trial that will be presided over by Judge Warren (KEN HOWARD).

As Hank works to prepare that defense, he also runs into his former high school sweetheart, Samantha "Sam" Powell (VERA FARMIGA), who now owns the local diner, while he also sets his sights on the much younger Carla (LEIGHTON MEESTER) who works as a bartender in the local watering hole. But he most focus most on his father's case that could be derailed due to their tenuous past and present relationship.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
I guess it really shouldn't come as much of a surprise that there are a plethora of quotes about fathers and sons, what with the often tenuous -- sometimes long-standing, sometimes short term -- relationship between men and their male offspring. Maybe that goes back to the old animals in nature thing where male offspring ultimately challenged the "leader of the pack" and thus were viewed as potential adversaries or at least ones to be wary about.

The breeding rights obviously aren't in play in the familial meets judicial drama "The Judge," but the adversarial father and son relationship clearly is. In the pic, Robert Downey Jr. plays a highly successful, big-city lawyer who knows how to manipulate the law to free his high-end criminal clients of charges against them. When he hears that his mother has died, he temporarily puts all of that aside and returns to his small hometown and then sees, for the first time in a long time, his long-estranged father (Robert Duvall).

The latter has been the town's judge for the past 42 years, and despite their common loss, the chilly father-son relationship doesn't thaw at all during their brief time together. After the service and briefly spending time with his two brothers (Vincent D'Onofrio and Jeremy Strong), Hank is about to head back home, when he learns that his father has been accused of murder. Despite not liking the old man, he doesn't believe it, but isn't that surprised that his dad doesn't want his help, despite his expertise in such matters.

It won't take a law degree or experience on the bench to predict where all of this is ultimately headed. Yet, it is a bit surprising that it takes director David Dobkin ("Wedding Crashers," "Shanghai Knights") -- who works from a script by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque -- nearly two and a half hours to tell this tale and guide this film pretty much exactly where most everyone figures it will head and end. Father and son who don't get along? Already stated, but check. Big city guy can't believe he's back in his "backwater" hometown? Check. Same guy runs into his old girlfriend who still lives there? Check. Family member who's a bit mentally impaired? Yep. How about a surprise illness? You betcha. And what about the obligatory courtroom tactics that seem cool on film but rarely occur in real-life cases? Yeah, they're definitely there.

While romantic comedies and horror flicks seem to get a pass -- at least from some critics and even more viewers -- at trotting out the genre stereotypes, they feel a bit stale in familial or courtroom dramas. The only thing that can lift such a film from such a predicament is either brilliant writing or solid to terrific performances.

The latter benefits from a terrific cast, most notably Downey Jr. and Duvall. I could watch these two veteran performers take turns reading the phonebook, and thankfully our duo of scribes have given them something more interesting to recite. The lawyer is slick but not particularly likeable and has a less than ideal life, what with his wife cheating on him and thus leaving the custody of their young daughter in question. The judge is old, wise and beloved in the town, but he's been and continues to be hard on his boys, and a new medical condition has affected his memory.

The two are certainly believable playing son and father, and many a viewer who's had a strained relationship with a parent or child will clearly identify with what transpires here. D'Onofrio and Strong are good as the other siblings, although they obviously don't get as much meaty screen time as their counterparts. The same holds true for Billy Bob Thornton playing the prosecutor who unfortunately doesn't get enough material in or out of the courtroom battle. The same holds true, in its own subplot way, for Vera Farmiga as the obligatory left behind ex-girlfriend who reconnects with her past love, although there is a funny bit regarding her daughter. Other moments of comic relief are handled well.

What's present works for what everyone involved is trying to accomplish, and the leads certainly do their best to sell it. But the fact that we've previously seen most of these elements before -- both separately and collectively -- in other movies, and the all too obvious fact that the film pushes the temporal limits for such a pic results in a 5.5 verdict for "The Judge."

Reviewed October 8, 2014 / Posted October 10, 2014

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