Do we really want to see Robert Downey Jr. reform? In life, sure; I think we’re all happy that he got his act together more than a decade ago and is now one of the biggest stars on the planet. Sad story, happy ending. In the movies, though, Downey is our premier scoundrel, the guy whose mouth is as fast as his mind and whose whiplash impatience stems from the fact that the rest of us can’t keep up. Downey tamed — which is what most commercial movies eventually insist on, in keeping with the public morals — is only half the man. No one does scorn better; no one seems to have earned the right more than he.
Which is to say that “The Judge,” a slick, ripsnorting character drama whose artistic ambitions are consistently neutralized by its commercial imperatives, puts Downey in a box from which even he can’t escape. He plays Hank Palmer, the most soulless lawyer in all Chicago — “innocent people can’t afford me,” he sneers — who gets pulled back to his hometown of Carlinville, Ind., after his mother dies. “Grandpa died too?” asks his young daughter (Emma Tremblay), the only human Hank seems to care about. “No,” he corrects her, “Grandpa’s dead to me.”
“Grandpa” is Judge Joseph Palmer, the law in his neck of the woods and a stiff-necked Biblical patriarch played with authority by Robert Duvall. The acting legend knows he hasn’t had a role this good in a while, and he tears into it like prime rib. The script by Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque, and director David Dobkin (“Wedding Crashers”) eventually spells out why father hates son and vice versa, but it doesn’t really have to. No room can hold two men with this much charisma.
Hank returns for the funeral and reconnects with dutiful older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio, almost too convincingly gone to seed) and baby brother Dale (Jeremy Strong), the latter one of those mentally challenged movie cliches who has a cute tic (he carries a super-8 movie camera everywhere) and a penchant for simpleminded wisdom. “The Judge” shares with the recent “This Is Where I Leave You” a cookie-cutter approach to story structure and characters that leaves nothing to chance, least of all audience sentiment. There will be an adulterous wife (Sarah Lancaster), left back in the big city during the early scenes, and a free-spirited hometown honey (Vera Farmiga) to cue the hero’s mellowing. The hero is forgiven everything; the wife, nothing.
There will be revelations of past sins and present medical complications, and there will be temptation in the form of a hot barmaid (Leighton Meester), whose relationship with Hank turns out to be far more complicated than the movie knows how to handle. And because of the legal setting, there will be a thunderous courtroom proceeding in which the son is called on to defend the father after Judge Joe is charged with murder in a hit-and-run accident. The victim was a no-good who, years before, the judge regretfully let walk. But was the accident intentional? Prosecutor Dwight Dickham — a role made for Billy Bob Thornton at his foxiest and most contemptuous — thinks so. Hank wants to mount a strong defense; the rock-ribbed judge demands an honest one.
“The Judge” is an easy watch, even as you see almost all of its pitches coming. The movie’s real reason for being is to let one of our more scintillating screen personalities go a few rounds with one of the great character leads of a previous generation. Accordingly, the scenes between Downey and Duvall deliver in escalating intensity and a curious sort of fondness, even as you sense the actors know they’re working with B+ material. A sequence late in the film, in which Hank helps his father through a long night of infirmity, is appropriately ugly to behold, and it’s freighted with the mixed emotions of any grown child holding up a failing, falling parent.
Not content to let it go at that, “The Judge” cooks up some climactic Midwestern weather so Duvall can go the full Lear, and tacks on a coda that yanks gruesomely at our tears. Downey’s Hank is revealed to be a softy after all, and, again, that’s not what some of us are paying to see. The core of this drama is strong, even eternal — do men ever stop wrestling with their fathers? — yet too much of what surrounds that core is made of high-end
Despite being set in the heartland, “The Judge” was filmed all over Massachusetts, with Shelburne Falls substituting for rural Indiana. A number of scenes take place in the diner run by Farmiga’s character, those namesake falls visible through a picture window in the distance. Like much else here, they don’t seem quite real.