Review: 'The Judge'

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Of the 141 minutes in "The Judge," roughly 70 work well, hold the screen and allow a ripe ensemble cast the chance to do its thing, i.e., act. The other 71 are dominated by narrative machinery going ka-THUNKITA-thunkita-thunkita. This is the same sound a clothes dryer makes when a half-dozen John Grisham hardcovers are tossed in with an iron-plated movie star and 30 pounds of rocks.

Even when it clutters up the story, the script by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque takes every opportunity to flatter its protagonist Hank Palmer, played by Robert Downey Jr., who also served as one of several executive producers. Hank is a hotshot Chicago attorney famous for his loose ethics and wily courtroom ways. He's a whiz, literally; in the opening scene Hank urinates on a rival lawyer in a men's room, in a way director David Dobkin ("Wedding Crashers") wants us to take as charmingly combative.

However, life is crumbling all around Hank's glib bubble of an existence. His marriage is kaput, and he's threatening to sue for custody of his preteen daughter. Then Hank's mother dies, which necessitates a dreaded trip back home to southern Indiana to fictional Carlinville, where the adorable downtown waterfall suggests nothing vaguely in, or even near, the Midwest. (The exteriors were filmed in Shelburne Falls, Mass., among other Massachusetts towns.) Trapped in his hometown, Hank attempts to make nice with his estranged father, the feared local judge, now a widower, played by Robert Duvall.

And then comes the movie's hook. The old man is accused of hit-and-run murder, requiring Hank to swallow his pride and step up to defend his father against a clever prosecuting attorney portrayed by Billy Bob Thornton. "The Judge" deals with various sorts of second chances and redemption scenarios. Some of the detours pay off; others are loose flaps. With a legal procedural, filmmakers can get away with an overgenerous running time and an overpacked story, for one simple reason: Audiences know a courtroom finale's due to arrive shortly.

It's the family scenes that lift the material above its station. Hank's brothers are played by Jeremy Strong (effective in a drecky holy-fool stereotype of a role) and Vincent D'Onofrio, who is terrific as always. Really terrific. Wish-the-movie-was-about-him-not-Robert-Downey-Jr.-terrific. Vera Farmiga is the cafe owner who knew Hank when, and who busts his chops with a wolfish grin every time he comes sniffing around the diner.

The best of the fractious domestic clashes, in which old grievances and resentments come to the fore, give "The Judge" a jolt of juicy melodrama. Then there's the very best portion of "The Judge," leaving melodrama behind for a truer, plainer brand of human frailty. The Duvall character, whose health is failing, undergoes some serious challenges, and there's a sequence when the imperious judge must accept Hank's aid in a particularly compromising situation. Suddenly "The Judge" transforms into a different, darker, better film. And Downey, elsewhere unable to shake the aura of a supercool movie star slumming in a "character-driven" personal project, finally loses some of the self-regard and meets Duvall on his wavelength.

 "The Judge" - 2 1/2 stars

MPAA rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

Running time: 2:21

Opens: Friday