Film review: Overwrought emotions spoil ‘The Judge’

Vincent D’Onofrio, Robert Downey Jr. and Jeremy Strong are sons of The Judge.

Two stars

The Judge Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga. Directed by David Dobkin. Rated R. Opens Friday.

The strain for respectability can be felt in virtually every moment of David Dobkin’s hokey dramedy The Judge, the comedy director’s bid to be taken seriously after directing movies like Wedding Crashers, The Change-Up and Fred Claus. The movie’s main star, Robert Downey Jr., could likewise use a reminder of his serious acting credentials, after years spent playing Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes and appearing in comedies.

So The Judge tugs on heartstrings pretty much from the moment it starts, and it doesn’t let up until reaching its protracted ending nearly two and a half hours later. In addition to Downey, Dobkin has rounded up an impressive cast that also includes Robert Duvall as the title character, along with Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio and Billy Bob Thornton, but none of them rises above the pandering material, with the great Duvall in particular coasting on his inherent gravitas.

Downey also mostly gets by on his existing appeal, imbuing hotshot Chicago lawyer Hank Palmer with the same kind of oily charm he lends to Tony Stark. The amoral Hank, used to defending wealthy but guilty clients, is about to get a predictable wake-up call when he travels from the big city to his small Indiana hometown to attend his mother’s funeral. There he engages in typical city-boy-returns-home activities, including reconnecting with his ex-girlfriend (Farmiga), opening up old wounds with his family and rediscovering his childhood innocence. He does all that in the context of defending his proud, antagonistic father Joseph (Duvall), the community’s longstanding local judge, on murder charges stemming from a hit-and-run accident.

Dobkin and his co-writers attempt to blend the predictable family drama with a rousing courtroom case, but the overwrought emotions consistently get in the way of anything resembling compelling legal drama. None of those emotions rings true, and Dobkin overloads Hank with tearjerking backstory and heartwarming supporting characters, including a mentally challenged brother who offers up inadvertent wisdom and a precocious daughter who offers up inadvertent wisdom.

Meanwhile, the filmmaker can’t quite give up his penchant for crowd-pleasing comedy, which leads to some rather incongruous moments (especially a bizarre subplot in which Hank hooks up with a woman who may or may not be his daughter). Even after the main story appears to be over, the movie drags on for another 20 minutes or so, ensuring that its characters have experienced every possible heartbreak and life lesson. For Dobkin, as in his comedies, too much is never enough.

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