You Be the Judge About This New Pairing of Robert Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr.

Director: DAVID DOBKIN/2014

In The Godfather, Robert Duvall played Tom Hagen, the unofficial son of Don Vito Corleone, and lawyer for the family.  In his early years, Robert Downey, Jr. played the real life part of a delinquent, in and out of jail, and to the point where he was uninsurable to even make a film.  And if you were to take these two narratives and flip them on their collective heads, you’d end up with the characters we experience in their new collaborative effort, The Judge.

Duvall is no longer Tom Hagen, but here, has grown into a respectful judge named Joseph Palmer.  Having served on the bench for 42 years (incidentally that would take us back to 1972 which is the year of The Godfather), Judge Palmer has just lost his beloved wife of 50 years. The judge is also quite estranged from his middle son, Hank (Downey, Jr.).  Hank (like Downey in real life) has turned himself around from the juvenile delinquent he once was.  Having graduated #1 in his class at Northwestern, Hank is a hot-shot Chicago lawyer who has long since left his old, small-town Indiana home behind.

After hearing of his mom’s death, Hank leaves his daughter and soon-to-be-ex-wife in Chicago to make the trip back home and say goodbye to his mother.  But going back home is fraught with opportunities for old grievances to resurface between father and son, and with Hank and his 2 brothers.

When Hank is on the plane to head home after being reminded again that he and his father are oil and water, he gets a phone call that means he’ll be sticking around a bit longer….his dad, the judge, is being investigated for killing a man by running him down with his car. Can the Judge’s hot-shot attorney son get him out of this mess? Are they willing to set aside a lifetime of grievances to work together?

Up to this point, the plot smacks of a cliched buddy picture mixed with a possible intriguing legal entanglement.  And in lesser hands, that is exactly what this would have become. Fortunately, Robert Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr. are not interested in doing the typical “buddy” picture.  This is a film that strives to be a character driven narrative of a family battling their own demons as they collectively try to move past a lot of hurt and pain that they have inflicted upon each other over the years.

Glen Palmer (Vincent D’Onofrio-Men in Black, Full Metal Jacket), Hank’s older brother was once a pro-scouted baseball star whose potential career was sidelined when Hank rolled the car with both of them in it. Now, Glen is relegated to running his own car shop.  Jeremy Strong (Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty) plays Dale, the youngest brother who has some mental issues and is known for his carrying around of a classic styled video camera.  Also, populating the town is Hank’s old high school flame, Samantha (Vera Farmiga-The Conjuring, Safe House) who has never left but is still working in the same old diner.

Much of Hank’s relationships, both family and friends, are seen through his lens of looking back and wondering why they didn’t take his path in life which consisted of “getting out”.  Getting out, away from his overbearing judge of a father who once had him locked up as a juvenile; getting out of a relationship that threatened to tie him down; getting out of a town where he’d never climb high enough to win his father’s approval. Getting out is what mattered….why have so many of his family and friends chosen to stay? And yet, with his father being prosecuted by a competent and ambitious prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton-Sling Blade, Monster’s Ball), it is finally a reason for Hank to stick around and see if he might find a reason to stay and see something through for the right reasons.

His father, Joseph, is the toughest client Hank has ever defended.  For most cases, Hank could take the money and defend people he cared nothing about.  Now, in his father’s former courtroom, hen has to start having a respect for the law itself, and not just the results that come by manipulating it.  His father’s desire to stick to the integrity of the law rather than be declared innocent just because they “won the case” strikes at the heart of the conflict that exists between them.

The Judge becomes an entertaining drama and character based story while dangling the carrot of an intriguing courtroom thriller just beyond our reach.  This film never becomes an intriguing case as much as an intriguing movie about healing.  With a run-time that is about 25 minutes too long, there are several sequences that could have been trimmed to keep the courtroom tension a little tighter.

All in all, The Judge is entertaining, and a showcase for two charismatic talents like Downey, Jr. and Duvall to play to their former real-life and fictional selves.  And just like if Tom Hagen had found his way out of the Corleone family business, and just as Downey, Jr. has found himself sober, and on top of his professional career, The Judge looks to give two characters their shot of redemption.  A case of art imitating life, informing new art.  You be the judge.