Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall in The Judge.
Claire Folger—Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
October 8, 2014 9:30 AM EDT

A judge may be deeply suspicious of the defense attorney in his court. One is sworn to dispense justice, the other bent on finding every legal loophole for clients to slip through. Hank (Robert Downey Jr.), a brilliant schemer of a Chicago lawyer, defends the guilty because “Innocent people can’t afford me.” Judge Joseph (Robert Duvall), a veteran judge in rural Indiana, has only contempt for such wily rule-bending. “Imagine a faraway place where your opinion matters,” he tells Hank when the younger man shows up in Joseph’s jurisdiction. “Now go there.”

That Joseph Palmer and Hank Palmer are father and son, and have been estranged for much of their lives, is the first selling point of director David Dobkin’s The Judge, a courtroom drama of antagonistic family values. The second and more pertinent attraction is the pairing of two exemplary actors: Downey, who has holidayed from his early eminence (and notoriety) by playing Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes in a half-dozen fantasy blockbusters, and Duvall, the flinty patriarch of modern American cinema. Downey spits out dialogue at auctioneer speed; Duvall lasers that killer stare, like a male Medusa, or flicks a lizardly smile, which is even more chilling. Their collision-combustion strikes the expected sparks, in a movie that’s not quite worthy of the occasion. Billed as a heavyweight championship bout, The Judge is more a middle-of-the-card time-passer.

Like Ben Affleck’s Nick in Gone Girl, Hank has come home from the big city for his beloved mother’s death. His two brothers — the older, crippled Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and the younger, slow-witted Dale (Jeremy Strong) — greet him warmly. Not so Joseph, whom all his children call Judge, perhaps because he laid down his stern law to them instead of lifting them with his love. An Old Testament type, secure in both his moral righteousness and his judicial rectitude, the Judge lavished affection only on his late wife and his ’71 Coupe de Ville… because, as we know from Gran Torino, The Bucket List and the new St. Vincent, every codger needs a vintage car. Hank can’t stand his dad and has stayed away from him. As he explains to his 10-year-old daughter Lauren (Emma Tremblay): “Grampa Palmer’s dead to me.”

Grampa may be facing death because of a ride he took in his old Caddy. In the screenplay by Nick Schenk (who wrote Gran Torino) and Bill Dubuque, Joseph becomes a suspect in the hit-and-run demise of one Mark Blackwell (Mark Kiely). Years before, the Judge had given a light sentence to Blackwell, who then committed a particularly heinous murder. The events left a blot of regret on the Judge’s conscience; the dead man left his bloodstains on the fender of that Coupe de Ville.

When arraigned, the Judge hires local doofus lawyer C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard) as his counsel, but to mount a compelling defense against the slick prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) he will require a really clever advocate. Hmmm, who’s available? Maybe his hated son, who’s ready to take the job because, he says, he’s a little light on his pro-bono work this year.

Dramatizing a murder trial in a small town with intertwined guilty secrets, The Judge keeps wandering into territory staked by Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird. There are no racial overtones, since the Palmers live in quite the whitest part of Indiana. But Hank’s mentally challenged brother Dale is an obvious clear avatar of Mockingbird’s Boo Radley (whom Duvall played in the 1962 movie). Hank also alludes to Lee’s lawyer hero when he drily notes, “Everybody wants Atticus Finch until there’s a dead hooker in the hot tub.” The blood on the Judge’s car is his dead hooker.

Dobkin, who directed Vince Vaughn’s sharpest comedy of the past decade (Wedding Crashers) and his worst (Fred Claus), moves to drama with a slower rhythm — The Judge runs, or ambles, at a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes — but the same nudging of the audience: double-takes from the actors, a sudden storm during a big confrontation, the Thomas Newman score that points at the rise of any emotion like a grade-school teacher wielding a yardstick. Clever scenes, like Hank’s psychoanalyzing prospective jurors by asking what messages are on their bumper stickers, alternate with pokey detours. Hank’s old girlfriend Samantha (Vera Farmiga) is still in town… and she has a daughter (Leighton Meester)… who might be Hank’s! Fine, but can we get back to the trial?

The movie also goes heavier on bodily functions than an early John Waters film. In an early scene, Hank accidentally-on-purpose pees on the pants of a rival attorney. C.P., the Judge’s first lawyer, is so nervous as he approaches the courtroom that he vomits every morning. You start to wonder whether Dobkin is going to resurrect the joke about the old man who goes to his doctor. (Doctor tells him, “I’ll need a urine sample, a stool sample and a semen sample.” Old man says, “Here, take my underpants.”) Instead, he turns a moment when Hank intrudes on the Judge’s pathetic incontinence into a strange, strong affirmation of the father-son bond. As the Judge inches toward death, he becomes as helpless as a baby, and Hank is suddenly the parent cleaning up his child’s mess with a combination of duty, embarrassment and love.

Farmiga does small wonders with a thankless character: the wise, weary hometown girl who would be more comfortable in a Larry McMurtry multigenerational saga. Thornton is precise, ruthless and interestingly unknowable in the out-of-town prosecutorial sharpie role taken by George C. Scott in Anatomy of a Murder (a much sturdier small-town courtroom drama). There’s also Grace Zabriskie in the Grace Zabriskie role: the crazy lady she played on Twin Peaks and Big Love.

But you came for Downey and Duvall, and you get a lot of what they’ve got to give. Amazing that Duvall was in his forties when he first played lawyer Tom Hagen — and that first Godfather movie was more than 40 years ago. At 83, he’s old enough for false teeth, but he’s still got his chops; the Judge needs just a single bite to leave wounds on his ambitious son’s ego.

Downey, 49, might consider Hank pro-bono work between headlining in his big franchises, even though those movies flatter his strength of lending a comic touch to overbearing geniuses. His character in The Judge — as in The Soloist and Due Date, Downey’s only two other non-action-film leading roles of the last six years — has affinities to Stark and Sherlock: he’s a bright, tense guy whom the plot compels to come to the aid of people he might otherwise despise. The odd thing is that, these days, this accomplished, serious actor looks more comfortable in fantasy roles. He does fine as Hank when ladling out the spit and sarcasm. But in the quieter moments, he’s sometimes like a race car being gunned in neutral. He’s never Acting so much as when he’s Being Human.

Touching on home truths about justice and the law, aging parents and their balky children, The Judge launches enough emotional pyrotechnics to satisfy most audiences. They may overpraise it because it reminds them of older, better movies. Wouldn’t it be lovely to see a modern version of Mockingbird or Anatomy of a Murder? Even the update of a solid John Grisham suspenser like The Client, A Time to Kill or The Rainmaker?

It’s tempting to lay the tissue of a cherished old movie on a new film of similar intent and, our vision clouded by nostalgia for a favorite genre, see its retro appeal. Years from now, we may even apply that retro glow to this movie. We’ll think of its upmarket stars and honorable ambitions and wonder, “Why don’t they make movies like The Judge any more?”

The answer: They do, but on TV network law shows.

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