THE JUDGE is everything thats wrong with studio bids for Oscar consideration. A carefully calculated effort designed to hit all the perceived necessary tropes to qualify as both important and as quality. Alas, it is neither. True, there are excellent performances by Robert Downey, Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, and Billy Bob Thornton, but they are in service of a script that is a hopeless morass of clichés and contrivance.
Downey is Hank Palmer, a slick lawyer who glibly wins cases for guilty clients and gleefully pockets the big bucks this talents nets for him. In the middle of a big case, he is called home from the big city to rural Indiana for the funeral of his mother who has died suddenly. The loss is bad enough, but it also brings him face to face with his father, Joseph, the local and titular judge of the piece. To say they dont get along is putting it mildly, but rather than stay in a motel, or with his brother Glen (Vincent DOnofrio) Hank bunks with his hated father and beloved but mentally challenged brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong). All the better for the first in a series of confrontations that allow the actors to exhibit their thespian skills, though.
Naturally, after the funeral, Hank bids farewell all with a promise to never return. And, further naturally, hes boarded the plane when the call comes in that forces him back to the family homestead. The judge has been arrested for murder, and Hank cant bring himself to leave his father in the hands of the local attorney (Dax Shephard), the one who runs an antique shop on the side and throws up before every court appearance.
Individual moments are lovely. Downey is charismatic and vulnerable beneath that cocky veneer; Duvall is in his element doing patented crusty character, but this is the sort of film that piles on catastrophic illness, thwarted pro sports careers, and a tornado into the action. Its the sort of film where Hank tumbles from a bicycle just as his old, and still hot flame, just happens to be driving by. Where a meaningful conversation with his grade-school daughter takes place over an ice-cream cone in a town that looks like something out of Norman Rockwell. Between the formula overkill, and the psychological sham perpetrated to drive the characters, the film becomes supremely irksome as one hackneyed device after another is trotted out with the gravitas of Lincolns Second Inaugural. Swelling music of a monumental nature and slow-panning camera shots do little to alleviate the annoyance.
THE JUDGE has high-minded goals beyond making itself Oscar-bait, but issues of justice, rule of law, and the simple joys of small-town life dont stand a chance against writing that relentlessly panders to Academy voters, particularly when they run smack up against a courtroom scene that is deliberately staged to look like something out of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, a film we are put in mind of when Hank mentions Atticus Finch. Comparing this with a masterpiece was a very, very bad idea.