Robert Downey Jr. plays Robert Duvall Jr. in this courtroom-cum-family drama about a hotshot lawyer (Downey Jr.) who ends up defending his estranged father (Duvall), a respected judge accused of murder.
The Judge is executive produced by Downey Jr., whose Iron Man performance stops just short of his flying around the courtroom firing lazers from his hands. Irony Man’s constant wise-cracking and cocksure charm feel out of step with the more serious elements of the film, which shifts uneasily in tone throughout. Balancing comedy, crime and drama takes a director of greater skill than the man responsible for Wedding Crashers and The Change-Up, and David Dobkin directs with all the subtlety of the hurricane that storms symbolically through one of the movie’s many father-son shouting matches. Impressive performances from both Duvall and Downey Jr. make the movie more than watchable, but bleary-eyed bonding and courtroom clichés consistently overrule the drama.
But what makes the film more uncomfortable than the wooden benches of its courtroom is precisely the level of comfort it affords its unpleasant characters, who are almost entirely white, wealthy and male. Vera Farmiga plays the only female character, whose role is limited to pining for our smarmy Marvel hero. We’re invited to side with these rich white men against the poor family of the victim, because of the supposed injustice of a respectable family being brought into disrepute. Billy Bob Thornton plays the prosecution lawyer with the desire to see everyone treated equally under the law, whether they’re a respected judge or a convicted criminal. It’s a laudable principle, but one entirely undermined by Thornton’s portrayal as a Scaramanga-style villain, but instead of a golden gun he’s The Man with the Silver Cup.
At 140 schmaltzy minutes, which is also the number of over-the-top gasps from the gallery, The Judge is clearly courting Oscars, and its sense of entitlement is likely to impress the Academy. Like last year’s awards-botherer Dallas Buyers Club, this is a film designed to make wealthy Americans question exactly none of their values. Outdated, overlong and obnoxious, The Judge ends with a country cover of a Coldplay song. It’s that movie.