The Judge (Dobkin, 2014) begins with slimy, big city lawyer Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) getting a call that his mother has passed away. He travels home for the first time in many years to see his long estranged family and friends, and to attend his mother’s funeral. No matter how uncomfortable any of that might be however, it’s nothing compared to his interactions with his father Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), possibly the most principled and ornery human being on the planet. Needless to say Hank can’t wait to get away from it all, but a sudden murder charge against the aging Judge causes Hank to rush to his father’s aid. What secrets and lies between these two men have caused them to hate each other so much? And will they be able to work through their differences and win the case?
I disagree with other critics on a lot of points with this film. Mainly the stance that it’s hard to care about the characters. I will concede that there is a lot to dislike about the characters, but I think that is part of the point of the film. Most films with this kind of story, where a father and son have to work past their differences, seem to pick a side from the outset. One of my favorite films with this plot device, Big Fish (Burton, 2003), clearly paints the son as a jerk and the dad as a hero from the beginning. It’s only a matter of time before the son must realize the error of his ways and see how awesome his dad really is. However in this film both characters are jerks. Both of them have done horrible things to the other, and both are unwilling to see themselves as anything but the victims in their relationship. And so it makes it that much more powerful when they do eventually start to see things from each other’s points of view.
Overall the biggest strength of the film is also why I think so many critics are responding negatively to it. It’s a very unpleasant film to watch. The cold almost medical lighting killed the family friendly, down home feel that most movies of this type tend to have. Robert Downey Jr. was just as fast and witty as he usually is but with a certain menace that I had not seen before, playing a man who has made every mistake a man can make and is yet still fiercely defensive of his own pride. His performance was far more relatable than I’ve ever seen him as he consistently found a human pathos and humor in the life of a truly twisted and broken man. Robert Duvall is to my mind one of the greatest actors to ever grace the silver screen, and this role was no exception. Much like Downey, Duvall’s character was equal parts sympathetic and intimidating. He plays man who has allowed his principles to replace his compassion, and pride his common sense. The film has a frank attitude about life and all the most embarrassing, horrible, and yet defining moments in adulthood. That’s not to say that everything in the film is universal. But it is a more common story than it would have been years ago. The nuclear family is a rabidly disintegrating concept in this day and age, and stories like the Palmers are all too common. In that regard whether or not you think that The Judge is a “good” film, I at least think it is an important one, and a must see for people like me who love watching some of the world’s greatest acting talent fight on camera. 6 out of 10.