What is it about big city hotshots returning to their small town roots to deal with unresolved familial issues? What is it about them that prompts movie after movie to be made about them? In this case, the hotshot is lawyer Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.), and the familial issues primarily involve his father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall). While the plot and setting are full of clichés, the chemistry between Downey and Duvall keeps the film in entertaining territory.
After Hank's mother unexpectedly passes away, Hank must return home to his estranged father and brothers. When the Judge is convicted of murder, Hank sticks around to defend the man he despises and is determined to get to the bottom of why their relationship is so strained. The usual characters are there: the dutiful older brother (Vincent D'Onofrio) who started a family and takes care of the aging parents and mentally slow youngest brother (Jeremy Strong). Hank has an estranged wife back in the big city (Sarah Lancaster) and reunites with a high school sweetheart (Vera Farmiga). He's forced to work with a do-gooder local lawyer to defend his father, played by an uncharacteristically aw-shucks Dax Shepard. The plot is exactly as you expect, full of father-son issues, hijinks, and health concerns. Taken by itself, the film is pretty unremarkable.
What makes The Judge stand out is its excellent casting. Downey and Duvall are typecast in the best sense of the word. Downey is all swagger and fast-talking sarcasm while Duvall is the stubborn, hardened old man. Their first meeting is hardly a meeting at all, with the Judge giving his son only the briefest of handshakes before moving on to hug other mourners. As the film progresses, you can feel the tension building between the two. Once Hank becomes the Judge's lawyer, it forces their interactions to be longer and more honest. Watching the two go head-to-head is almost too much fun. Both are forces to be reckoned with in completely different ways, and Hank's insistence that he learn why his father has been so cold to him runs up right against the Judge's prideful obstinacy.
Downey in particular is just so much fun to watch. His dialogue is always snappy and delightful, and he delivers it with the arrogance and confidence we've come to expect from Iron Man. He practically whirls back into town, leaving slack-jawed observers in his wake. At the same time, Downey can switch in the blink of an eye to vulnerability, at one turn smiling and the next crying. Duvall does much the same, easily letting the audience peek at the weaknesses and fear underneath the pride.
The Judge is an enjoyable way to kill a weekend afternoon, predictable as it is. Downey and Duvall play to their strengths, and the rest of the cast enlivens their characters with enough personality that you can overlook the clichéd plot.