Take a Drink: when any character drinks
Take a Drink: every time Duvall tells someone off
Drink a Shot: when the accidental incest subplot surfaces (because that always happens to dumb Midwesterners amiright?)
Drink a Shot: for an unpleasant bodily function mishap
By: Oberst Von Berauscht (Three Beers) –
Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is a wealthy Chicago defense attorney who has spent the last 20 years trying to forget about his home town of Carlinville, Indiana. This is particularly because his father is Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), a cantankerous man who raised his children in the same officious manner that he handles his courtroom.
Upon learning that his mother has passed away, Hank begrudgingly returns, knowing that for the first time in years he will have to talk to “The Judge”. The morning after the funeral, Judge Palmer is arrested by the police for murder, alleging he took part in a hit and run incident the night before. Complicating matters is that the victim was a criminal the Judge may have had a reason to want dead, which results in the Judge being charged for murder, and Hank facing pressure to defend his father in court.
Robert Downey Jr. might have been permanently typecast to play the snarky “too cool for school” bastard. And while his character in The Judge certainly shows traits of this, the film departs from his Sherlock Holmes and Ironman personae by not celebrating this fact. Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that Hank is perhaps more similar to his father than he’d admit, and that scares him. It is a very well realized performance that melds when played against Duvall’s Judge, who has spent his entire life being right, and would be damned rather than let himself show weakness.
Vincent D’Onofrio plays the older brother Glen Palmer, who didn’t stray far from home, and has become the family caretaker. Jeremy Strong plays their intellectually disabled brother Dale, whose obsession with 8mm filmmaking sometimes comes out at awkward times. Vera Farmiga plays Samantha, a childhood love interest of Hank’s who still harbors strong feelings. Nearly all of the characters are well drawn and have a place in the story.
The major falling out point is in the story, which tries to juggle a courtroom and family drama in one film. While the family drama moments ring mostly true, the trial aspect of the story suffers from underdevelopment, and begins to buckle from over-reliance on clichés. Billy Bob Thornton is given a rather underwritten role as the prosecuting attorney with a bone to pick. Billy Bob is a strong enough performer to make his scenes engaging, but you’ve seen his character before in a hundred John Grisham stories. Some of the courtroom theatrics feel used simply to force-feed weight to a story that didn’t need any more.
Speaking of force-feeding drama, there is a scene mid-way into the film which takes place during a storm. In this scene, the mentally challenged brother Dale plays family movies on his projector, and just happens to have used footage from a traumatic moment in their past, without any concept that this might be awkward. The rest of the film treats Dale’s character quite respectably, and avoids the dangerous territory of talking down to a handicapped character. And that is why this moment particularly feels inauthentic, as Dale might not be “all there”, but he is quite functional, and seems out of character for him to not realize that an incident which is too sensitive to even talk about around his father would be ok to splice into a film and force him to watch.
A spectacular cast lead by Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall save a rather clunky story from flying off the rails.