By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — As they used to say on “Laugh-In,” here comes The Judge.
And there goes the grudge.
In the courtroom drama The Judge, Robert Downey Jr. stars as Hank Palmer, a successful big-city criminal defense attorney with a stable of unscrupulous white-collar clients who returns from Chicago to Carlinville, his small hometown in Indiana, to attend his mother’s funeral.
But on the night of the funeral, when Hank’s estranged father, Joseph, the aging, stern, provincial, title character (played by Robert Duvall) is accused of an intentional hit-and-run murder -– of a criminal whom he had reason to despise — Hank takes the case over the vociferous objections of Joseph, who strongly disapproves of his lawyerly tactics.
Even though the crafty prosecutor, played by Billy Bob Thornton, is intent on winning the case against Joseph, the judge wants to put his fate in the hands of a bumbling young lawyer (Dax Shepard).
So Hank, despite being in a custody battle for his seven-year-old daughter, decides to stick around for the trial. Just in case.
Hank’s brothers (Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) watch their brother and father -– both smart, stubborn, and accomplished -– put each other down as resentments, regrets, revelations, and recriminations surface and Hank reconnects with an ex-flame (Vera Farmiga), who runs the local diner.
Director David Dobkin, who has a lot more experience in the comedy realm (Wedding Crashers, The Change-Up, Fred Claus, Shanghai Knights) than in drama, co-wrote the story with Nick Schenk that Schenk and Bill Dubuque then turned into a screenplay that embraces repetitiveness but eschews subtlety. But Dobkin seems out of his depth directing straight drama.
Downey, who’s been concentrating on franchise installments of late (Iron Man, Sherlock Holmes, The Avengers), also serves as a co-producer. But neither the film nor his portrayal are up to his usual standards.
With the comedic instincts of Downey and Dobkin in its corner, The Judge has potential and promise. But neither of the leads nor the director employs a light touch. Instead, exchanges are consistently overheated, emotional eruptions are far too calculated and choreographed, and much of the on-the-nose dialogue is underlined to such an extent that neither the melodramatic family dynamics nor the courtroom maneuverings ring anywhere near true.
Emotional resonance is at a minimum, so much so that the film sometimes resembles a simplistic “Perry Mason” episode.
Not that the players or the film itself are to be held in contempt, but a jury couldn’t help but notice that Dobkin has let both Downey and Duvall snack on the scenery with uncharacteristic and ineffective hamminess.
So we’ll strike from the record 2 stars out of 4 for the faltering father-son legal psychodrama, The Judge.
The jury’s verdict: guilty of overstating, overacting, and underachieving.