Gavels are slammed, tempers are lost and bowels are evacuated with great force in David Dobkin’s “The Judge,” an engrossing, unwieldy hurricane of a movie that plays like a small-town courtroom thriller by way of a testosterone-fueled remake of “August: Osage County.” Some elements ring truer than others in this ambitious blend of dysfunctional-family melodrama and legal procedural, but all of them are just about held together by the ferocious onscreen chemistry between two Roberts (Duvall and Downey Jr.), playing an overbearing father and a black-sheep son who find their already tense relationship literally put on trial. Refreshing as it is to see Downey step out of the Iron Man suit for a spell, the jury’s still out on whether an impressive talent roster can draw enough grown-up eyeballs to this overlong, resolutely old-fashioned male weepie, set for release Oct. 10 by Warner Bros.
For all the creakily elaborate Tennessee Williams-meets-John Grisham machinations cooked up by screenwriters Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque (working from a story by Dobkin and Schenk), “The Judge” pivots on a simple yet inspired stroke of casting, pitting Duvall’s iconic gravitas against Downey’s razor-sharp wit, and then supplying no shortage of opportunities for both men to chew the scenery. Given that their characters are members of a legal profession that invites all manner of verbal pyrotechnics and rhetorical showmanship, the actors are all too happy to oblige.
A brilliant, unscrupulous Chicago defense attorney who excels at getting white-collar criminals off the hook, Hank Palmer (Downey) is preparing to end his marriage and sue for custody of his 7-year-old daughter, Lauren (Emma Tremblay), when he receives news of his mother’s passing. Reluctantly he heads home to Carlinville, the sleepy Indiana town he swore he’d never return to after falling out years ago with his dad, Judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall), an irascible old coot and pillar of moral rectitude who couldn’t be more disapproving of his son the slick big-city operator.
Absence has not made either man’s heart grow fonder, and the tensions are laid on so thickly right at the outset — lawyer vs. judge, town vs. country, etc. — that viewers may feel ready to strap themselves in for a two-hour-plus marathon of familial misery. Yet Dobkin steers us entertainingly enough through the Palmers’ past resentments and present recriminations, and the script is quite effective at summing up years of embittered history with a single cutting exchange. Joseph’s grieving-widower status doesn’t stop him from seizing every opportunity to remind Hank what a disappointment he is, especially compared with his reliable older brother, family man Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), and his mentally challenged younger brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong), a regrettable Boo Radley stereotype who wanders around filming everyone with an old movie camera.
The presence of D’Onofrio in the cast provides an early tipoff that things are about to veer into “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” territory. Just when it seems Hank is ready to leave Carlinville for good, Joseph gets arrested and charged with a hit-and-run murder — an allegation that becomes even more serious when it turns out the victim is Mark Blackwell (Mark Kiely), a criminal lowlife whom the judge had particular reason to loathe. Joseph, a self-described “recovered alcoholic,” claims to have no memory of the night Blackwell was killed, and Hank, knowing his father will need the best defense possible, decides to stick around. But Joseph scorns the tricks of Hank’s trade and instead retains the services of an ineffectual local attorney (a bumbling Dax Shepard), convinced that the truth will prevail on its own — even when notoriously tough prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) is brought in to try the case against him.
Much of the pleasure of “The Judge” derives from the way Joseph and Hank clash over the proper way to handle their defense, carefully negotiating the thorny legal and moral ramifications of the case, then weighing them against their own difficult history and the sad fate that could await Joseph in the few years (maybe months) he has left. And the two leads superbly convey the complicated dynamic of a father and son who, for all their differences, are united by their colossal stubbornness, fierce intelligence and unwillingness to suffer fools gladly.
Neither actor is really attempting a change of pace here, and the material plays to their strengths and distinct personas at every turn — whether it’s Duvall laying down the law, so to speak, or Downey letting loose with a withering takedown of Carlinville’s white-trash population. That makes it all the more affecting on those rare occasions when Joseph and Hank achieve an honest moment of emotional connection, informed by their dawning awareness of the indignities of old age and the inevitability of death. Duvall’s performance, his most memorable in some time, carries unmistakable echoes of the many broken-down, hard-drinking, hermit-like men he’s played in movies past, yet never before has the 83-year-old actor rendered so painfully honest a portrait of a man whose body and mind are slowly failing him.
In an ambitious departure from such aggressively raunchy studio comedies as “Wedding Crashers” and “The Change-Up” (although like that film, “The Judge” does feature a memorable excrement explosion), Dobkin displays a nice sense of dramatic modulation here, informed by a keen understanding of the way family tensions tend to gather, erupt and then dissipate. Still, the director tends to overplay his hand whenever a heated confrontation comes along, whether it’s an over-studied image of father and son going their separate ways across an open field, or an argument whose melodramatic intensity is matched only by the gale-force winds outside their window.
Once the final verdicts are rendered and the consequences are doled out, the film goes regrettably soft as it seeks to tie up the various loose ends, in the process bringing Joseph and Hank’s relationship to the most sentimental conclusion imaginable. Still, better all this father-son Sturm und Drang than a forgettable subplot involving Hank’s attempts to rekindle an old flame (Vera Farmiga) and his brief flirtation with a sexy young bartender (Leighton Meester) who’s studying law. Along with Hank’s cheatin’ wife (a blink-and-you-miss-it performance by Sarah Lancaster), that’s about as rich and complex as the female roles get — not a huge surprise for this simmering cauldron of wounded male egos and latent daddy issues, but a disappointment nonetheless.
D’Onofrio adds a welcome voice of sanity as the most likable and long-suffering of the three Palmer brothers, while Thornton, acting for the umpteenth time opposite Duvall (whom he directed in “Sling Blade” and “Jayne Mansfield’s Car”), makes Dickham a wily and formidable opponent without turning him into an exaggerated villain. Elsewhere, the always underexposed Grace Zabriskie is aces in a small but vivid role as the hit-and-run victim’s enraged mother.
Fitting Dobkin’s heightened ambitions, the technical contributions are considerably more accomplished than in the director’s prior efforts. Janusz Kaminski’s 35mm cinematography lends a depth of polish to the picture, lensed primarily in the historic Massachusetts village of Shelburne Falls, whose waterfalls provide lovely background distraction at certain moments. Thomas Newman’s score manages, not without strain, to accommodate the film’s gradual shift from glib comedy to brooding dramatics.