"In my experience, sometimes you gotta forgive, in order to be forgiven."
There’s reason to get excited over Robert Downey Jr moving to a more serious line of acting again. He’s demonstrated his ability to play the douchebag, whether he’s a likable one such as Tony Stark or not. But most of these roles have been family friendly films, with nothing to break the mould in recent years. There are other factors that give this film a promising premise, but it’s a safe bet that Downey is the main attraction for this drama.
A successful attorney from Chicago is called back to his hometown to attend his mother’s funeral. As he is leaving the local judge is arrested for the hit-and-run of a criminal, leaving the attorney to represent him. One more thing, the accused driver is his father. The setup sounds like a heavy set drama full of twists and tension. It has a great opportunity to explore a father-son relationship here, and it does so quite well. There are some delicate and dramatic scenes in which Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr (i.e. scripts for two leading actors would not have been able to just be marked Robert D).
Problems arise from the fact that Duvall’s character is written in quite a one dimensional way. He is stubborn, and it is that simple. There does not seem to be a legitimate reason for all of this bitterness either, he is just the way he is. But Duvall manages to do a pretty good job of portraying him. For the way that the character is written he creates a reasonable attitude and believable nature to him with some damn good acting. The simple elements are used to good use as his straight thinking attitude clashes nicely with Robert Downey’s free thinking attorney.
Their relationship is the highlight of the film. The scenes where they have a one to one, not talking about the actual plot, just the background stuff of their beliefs and attitudes towards each other. It will make you want to talk to your own father by the end of it. It was effective; you really felt the hard hitting nature of what was going on. But like I said you have to look at Duvall and think ‘no one can be that stubborn, you have to bend at some point man’.
The other problem is that the tense family scenes really overshadow the courtroom scenes. The actual plot of the film feels like an excuse just to have these few scenes, and they are powerful, but they distract you too much from the plot. You start to wish that they would move on from the case to focus on the more interesting family drama. With Billy Bob Thornton as the opposing attorney accusing Duvall of murder it appeared to be a good opportunity for a evenly matched case. Downey and Thornton’s characters are very similar, in fact if it were not for the circumstances they would be friends. They have similar ideals and morals and are both incredibly intelligent and ruthless. But the idea is not used as well as it could be and as a result you don’t really care. The courtroom scenes become a clichéd sequence that you want to end.
The Judge just has no idea what it is focussing on. Does it want to explore a family relationship, a slick legal story, a hard hitting drama? Ultimately it ends up missing the mark on a lot of them. Good acting manages to make the emotions effective and believable enough. If you like stories that make you feel good and clichés do not bother you then by all means watch this, otherwise, you are likely to be disappointed.