The leads' chemistry is impressive.
While watching The Judge, I found myself pondering how reviewing a movie resembles being a member of a trial jury. You know you're supposed to consider the matter at hand rationally and objectively. Yet filmmakers, like effective attorneys, often want to shift your sympathies by appealing to a particular emotional response. It's no longer about "just the facts," even if you try to resist any tugs to your heartstrings.
The Judge begins with hotshot defense attorney Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) being followed into the courthouse bathroom by a prosecutor (David Krumholtz). Palmer notes the cliché of the prosecutor asking the defense attorney how he sleeps at night knowing he's helping a guilty man escape justice. It's as if the filmmakers are saying, "We know how you expect this to play out, but we're not going to give you what you expect."
But at times that's exactly what they deliver. Hank travels to his hometown for his mother's funeral, where he sees his estranged father, Joseph (Robert Duvall), for the first time in years. A respected judge, Joseph is about to receive a murder charge. The victim is a convicted killer whose crime was made possible by Joseph's leniency. The angry son and the prickly father must work together.
This hackneyed premise sometimes works thanks to the leads. Downey could play this kind of slick fast-talker in his sleep, but he manages to find something genuinely wounded in a successful man returning to a place where he was simply an adolescent screw-up. Duvall turns Joseph's moral rigidity into both a blessing and a curse, invoking his hard-nosed dad character from The Great Santini. These two great actors are also terrific together, especially in a scene where Joseph lets Hank to come to his aid when he's at his most vulnerable. A big, tearful moment between them ends on a surprisingly edgy note.
If The Judge kept its focus on this relationship, it might be a more successful film. But the story by director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) and screenwriter Nick Schenk (Gran Torino) wanders all over the place, touching on Hank's relationships with his brothers (Vincent D'Onofrio, Jeremy Strong), daughter (Emma Tremblay) and high school girlfriend (Vera Farmiga). Few of these characters are necessary to the story.
The plot builds to a courtroom finale, shot by longtime Steven Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski. The radiant backlighting makes every character look like a heavenly apparition. Your brain will note that this scene is overwrought, but your gut may like it anyway.