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The Judge

(2014) ** 1/2 R
141 min. Warner Bros. Pictures. Director: David Dobkin. Cast: Vera Farmiga, Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall.

/content/films/4732/1.jpgHere comes The Judge. And it’s been a while since we’ve seen a movie so…Grisham-y. But here we are again with big movie stars (Robert Downey Jr.) and character actors (Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton) facing courtroom cases converging with personal crises including, crucially, one of conscience.

Downey and Duvall, who here play father and son, have already co-starred in an actual John Grisham adaptation (Robert Altman’s 1998 film The Gingerbread Man), but the screenplay The Judge is its own original package, with a story co-written by Nick Schenk and director David Dobkin, a script by Schenk and Bill Dubuque, and a roster of eight producers that includes Dobkin, Downey, and the star’s wife Susan. And “package” is, unfortunately, the word for a story that runs on clichés and ultimately earns more credit for what it doesn’t do (pull as many twists as it seems to be telegraphing with its quirky cast of characters) than for what it does (mash up witty banter, domestic strife, and sentimentality—in that order).

Downey plays high-powered, high-priced, cock-of-the-walk defense attorney Hank Palmer, who returns home to small-town Carlinville, Indiana to attend his mother’s funeral while trying to avoid the prickly father (Duvall) who’s dead to him. Duvall’s seventy-two-year-old Joseph Palmer, a venerable local judge, lands a murder charge just in time to trap Hank in town as overseer of Dad’s defense, forcing rounds of recrimination and reconciliation as Hank’s brothers Dale (Jeremy Strong) and Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) look on.

Plenty more is on the docket, including Hank’s oh-so-precocious daughter (Emma Tremblay) from a soon-to-dissolve marriage, his Carlinville ex-girlfriend Samantha (Vera Farmiga), and an old rival in prosecuting attorney Dwight Dickham (Thornton, in his sixth collaboration with Duvall). Plus there’s the grief over dead Mom, health concerns over Dad, the psychological struggles of mentally challenged Dale and dream-dashed almost baseball star Glen, and wait: might Samantha’s daughter (Leighton Meester) be Hank’s kid?

It’s enough to make a movie bloat to 141 minutes, and yet it’s much ado amounting to nothing much beyond actor-friendly histrionics. Every scene, whether it be a tornado-inflected argument or a moment of medical crisis forcing Hank to minister to Joseph, seems more a stab at an Oscar clip than an organic slice of life.

Still, The Judge isn’t so bad as a future channel-flip-destination time-waster: Downey’s shtick (what Samantha calls “that hyper-verbal vocabulary vomit thing that you do”) is reliably winning, and Duvall hasn’t missed a beat despite being over a decade older than his character. Since it the modicum of restraint not to succumb to even worse clichés that are well within its reach, The Judge makes for palatable mainstream big-Hollywood craftwork.

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