Reviewed By

Christopher Armstead
Let me give you analogy of what it felt like watching 'The Judge'.  Say you have a pet turtle and every once in a while this turtle pokes his head out, which makes you happy.  But you want this turtle to poke his head out again.  So you try to talk to the turtle to poke his head out, you tap his shell, you blow on him, you yell at him until eventually you just start banging on his shell to get this cursed turtle to pop his head out of his shell, but alas the only thing this turtle does is retreat deeper and deeper into this shell.  Eventually the filmmakers behind 'The Judge' started banging on my head, trying to force some kind of emotive response out of me, when eventually all I wanted was for this movie to just slowly go away.  Which it did.  Just as I eventually walked away from that damn pet turtle.  

Robert Downey Jr. is big time Chicago defense attorney Hank Palmer, and Hank is a jerk.  How do we know this?  He knowingly defends rich clients who are clearly guilty, and he 'accidentally' peed on one of the prosecutors in the bathroom.  Clearly, that's something only a jerk would do.  This guy needs redemption in the worst way.

Then unfortunately Hank gets the call that his beloved mom had passed… so beloved I don't think Hank seen her in twenty or so years, but whatever, it's time to head back to Podunk Indiana, and that's one place Hank doesn't want to go.  Why?  Because The Judge, his old man Joe Palmer is there, and these two hate each other.  Joe is rude, obstinate, bull headed, cranky and in a constant state of red ass.  This guy needs redemption in the worst way.

Hank also has brothers in Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio), and the mentally challenged Dale (Jeremy Strong) to deal with, and there's a bit of history in this as well, but it's The Judge that's the problem.  The funeral happens, The Judge and Hank lay into one another something awful and Hank is on his way back to his empty life in Chicago where his marriage is ending and he has the world's most adorable little girl, until he gets a call.  The Judge has run over somebody with his old Caddy and the authorities are pressing murder charges.
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So Hank jumps off the plane, goes to find out what's happening and represent his cranky hateful old man.  His old man doesn't want this big city slickster standing up for him, until it looks like he has no choice because it's looking kind of bad for the judge, being as how the person he accidentally ran down with his car was somebody he really wouldn't mind seeing dead, and prosecuting attorney Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) is trying this case like The Judge is one of the Nuremberg Seven.

The trial goes well, the trial goes badly, Joe and Hank get along, Joe and Hank blow up at each other, revelations are made, secrets are revealed, until… redemption.  And all will be right with the world.

I approached 'The Judge' prepared to love this movie, and why not?  Robert Downey Jr, Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D'Onofrio, Billy Bob Thornton and all of these actors did what they do.  Think RDJ can play a pompous, know it all jerk who is smarter than everybody else in the room?  Even though I think the man is arguably the finest actor of this generation, for the last decade it's pretty much all he's played.  Think Robert Duvall can play a cranky old man?  I don't think Mr. Duvall has to do any research for that role.  'The Judge' is a movie that takes square pegs and puts them in square holes so it should work absolutely perfectly.  But for me it didn't.

Why is that?  A number of reasons.  For starters the whole exercise felt manufactured.  Like a symphony played by machines, not people.  Sure, it sounds right, but it feels wrong.  The overwrought emotional cues felt forced, or most were wedged in for the sole purpose to drag some emotional response out of the audience, not necessarily because it actually belonged in the story.  Another reason is that our two main characters were pretty terrible people.  We know both characters have to find redemption at the end, but there's a balance that has be there beforehand, one that gives us some kind of endearment towards them, one that tells us that they are merely flawed, not just flat out awful people.  What kind of person pees on another person?  What kind of person doesn't see their mom or brothers for two decades just to spite another person?  Hank was stunned at the way his father took his daughter.  Who doesn't know that grandparents love their grandchildren way more than their actual children?  And for the judge's part, what kind of father doesn't even send a congratulatory note to their child after they graduate college / then law school?  No matter what they went through? A terrible father, that's the kind of father.   There are things these two men do that are almost unforgivable, like… maybe… vehicular homicide… that redemption at the end just isn't going resolve. 

Then the movie was just way too long.  Long emotional speeches, long emotional diatribes, lengthy scenes that in the grand scheme of things could've been left on the cutting room floor, and then we had something like four endings.  Is this 'Return of the King' I'm watching over here? 

I don't want to sound like I thought 'The Judge' was awful, because it's not.  There were some scenes between Downey Jr. and Mr. Duvall that were pure magic, two characters relating to each other on a personal, genuine level.  We needed more of that authenticity and less of a director hitting me on the head trying to force some emotion response out of me.  I completely resisted that.  'The Judge' was worse off for it.
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