By Mark Pajak
Who else but Robert Downey Jr could make pissing on someone’s shoes seem lovable? Open on a courthouse urinal where Downey’s character Hank Palmer (a skilled yet mercenary defence attorney) is mid-stream. Then the council for the prosecution taps him on the shoulder, Downey turns bodily and splash – a whole audience sniggers. Hank is arrogant yet charming, always suited and effortlessly the best in his field as Robert Downey Jr plays Robert Downey Jr yet again.
The story takes place in Hank’s boyhood town of Carnville, Indiana where he reluctantly returns to attend his mother’s funeral. This makes the opening Chicago scenes a race to get to the small town setting; Hank is set up as a loving if distracted father, a husband on the verge of divorce, then cut to the Midwest and the plot slows to molasses. Maybe it’s the Indiana heat or that Carnville is a farming community where things take time. Maybe it’s because the plot has now hit a wad of supporting characters in a tightly wound family where past angers and even people’s names need to be unpicked gently.
Enter Robert Duval as Hank’s father, Joseph. This moral small-town judge is the antitheses of the big-city lawyer. His relationship with his three sons is distant but unsurprisingly Joseph harbours a special dislike for Hank, as Hank does for him. Then the day after the funeral a body is discovered with all evidence pointing to Joseph. After a farcical preliminary hearing, Hank steps in to represent his father and the strolling plot begins an inexorable momentum.
As with most story’s set around a trial there’s a formula. The court case is the spine with its many reveals peppered with gasps from the jury. Outside the courtroom the complexities of this ‘Picasso painting of a family’ are worked through in moments that do not linger but are always interrupted, leading to fresh moments that build and build.
Duval is both convincingly cantankerous and unexpectedly frail, giving rise to heart-bruising moments of humanity. While Downey gives us his trademark blend of humour and vulnerability that proves the old mantra that ‘If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, though the choir of supporting actors sing with gusto, the film’s central duet drowns them out leaving so much background noise; a flimsy love story, a rich brotherly side plot that’s left untapped and the mystery of what happens to Hank’s Chicago family. By the end of the film the momentum is out of control and the plot seems to blink at the approaching end and shouts ‘ta da!’ in panic, giving a lingering feeling of deflation as the credits role.
Overall The Judge is amusing if unsatisfying. If you want a wry smile and there’s a Robert Downey Jr. poster on your wall, then this film has something to offer. However, if you want a new perspective on justice and there’s an Atticus Finch poster on your wall, then best read a John Grisham book instead.
Mark Pajak is studying on the Creative Writing MA with the Manchester Writing School at MMU. He has been published with Magma, Ink Sweat & Tears and Smoke Magazine among others. Follow him on Twitter here.