Hank Palmer (Downey) is an arrogant and selfish Chicago lawyer who is able to pretty much find any way to save his guilty clients from jail time. When his mom passes away, Hank is forced to return home to Carlinville, Indiana, where the rest of his family lives. He reunites with his two brothers (Vincent D'Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) and sees his ex-girlfriend Sam (Vera Farmiga), but Hank runs into trouble when it comes to seeing his dad again. Hank and his father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall), have never gotten along and their rocky relationship becomes troublesome again as soon as Hank returns to Carlinville. Hank and the Judge get into a fight after the funeral, and Hank decides to head back home.
However, Hank is forced to return after his father is arrested for the murder of an ex-convict, who was recently released from prison. At first, Judge hires an incompetent small time lawyer (Dax Shepard) to defend him, but eventually, he realizes that Hank has to be his attorney. Hank and Judge unite to fight against a smug prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton), who's ready to nail Judge on a first degree murder charge.
The Judge isn't a bad film. It isn't a good one either. It is just exceedingly mediocre. Downey Jr. and Duvall own their roles, and D'Onofrio and Strong round out the cast with strong supporting performances, yet I couldn't help but feel that some of the talent had been wasted. Some of the dialogue is realistic and entertaining, but some of it is cliched and completely ridiculous. Director David Dobkin struggles to shift the tone between overly sentimental family drama and intense legal thriller and it makes for a choppy and uneasy watch. There are good things about this film, but it's such a bumpy movie that feels like a hodgepodge of tones and plots that just doesn't completely work.
The best thing that this movie has going for it is Robert Downey Jr. He's a charismatic actor and he gives an emotional and raw performance in this movie. Robert Duvall also manages to carry some scenes as well, but his character is just such a jerk. Granted, Downey's Hank Palmer isn't exactly the best person either. However, Duvall's Judge is so unlikable. You understand his motives, yet I can't see anyone liking him. I liked Hank. I didn't like Judge. Therefore, I believe that Downey gave the better performance since you're really supposed to like and understand both characters.
This movie also has a stacked supporting cast. They really managed to get a lot of great people in this movie. Too bad the screenplay by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque wastes the talents of half of the actors. Vincent D'Onofrio and Jeremy Strong have meaty roles as Hank's brothers and both characters are ones that I managed to relate to. However, the rest of the cast doesn't have it as good. Vera Farmiga's subplot just adds to the lengthy 142 minute runtime, and Leighton Meester has even less to do as her daughter. Dax Shepard and David Krumholtz also have pretty tiny roles, but the biggest crime committed by Dobkin and the screenwriters is that they waste Billy Bob Thornton. He's an actor who can be absolutely magnetic when given something to work with, and in this film, he has nothing to work with. That was sad to me.
The Judge has major flow issues, which is a real problem. It's one of the choppiest movies I've seen all year and that hinders the movie quite frequently. The pacing is really good and I was always engaged, but I couldn't help but think that this movie needed a much better editor to get it put together the way it needed to be.
Somebody also should have cut down the screenplay and edited out some of the subplots. Each character seems to have their own individual story and it's all kind of revolving around the central story about the relationship between Hank and Judge. However, some of the stories are just plain unnecessary. In addition to that, the biggest problem this movie runs into is that it has no clue what it wants to be. It changes tone seemingly every other minute and is drowning in cliched sentiment quite often.
Bad movies are never good. I hate a movie that is so horrible and so painful that I want to leave. However, it can often be just as terrible if a movie is so incredibly mediocre that it just doesn't even really warrant a reaction at all. The Judge is one of those movies. It isn't aggressively awful. It's just there. You can watch it and be mildly entertained, but I dare you to feel anything passionate about this movie one way or another.
The Judge is a generic, mildly enjoyable movie that feels like a rough cut of a much stronger product. There are some great performances and terrific moments in this overly relaxed film with no real sense of tone or flow. In a season filled with terrific and audacious films, that's just not enough for a recommendation.
THE FINAL GRADE: C+ (6.5/10)