In The Judge, a legal drama that builds to the requisite Hollywood Dark Night of the Soul, Robert Downey Jr. has a role so far inside his comfort zone that the movie has no drive, no urgency. You know what the character is; you know where he’s going. Downey plays Hank Palmer, an amoral, hugely successful defense attorney whose clients are all scumbags, because, he tells an indignant prosecutor, “Innocent people can’t afford me” (a great line, admittedly). He and his wife are divorcing because she had an affair when he wasn’t there for her and their daughter, because he only cares about winning because he had a traumatic childhood, etc. Then, on cue comes a turn that forces him to face his past and question his own integrity — to judge himself. His mom dies and he returns to his New England hometown, his two damaged brothers, and his estranged father (Robert Duvall), an esteemed judge who belittles what Hank does. When the judge is accused of a hit-and-run murder and the attorney is plainly incompetent, guess who feels compelled to take the case?
This is not by any means a bad movie. The script has its bright patches, the setting is picturesque, and the cast is full of actors you’ll want to see. The resolution of the murder case is unexpected (the victim was a murderous piece of trash), though it doesn’t upend the basic cornball formula. (Hydrangeas represent purity.) But the film is nearly two and a half hours, and director David Dobkin doesn’t rise above the level of a proficient TV hack. (Dobkin’s forte is comedy.) The biggest surprise is how few sparks pass between the two first-rate stars. Duvall’s role keeps him shut down, mulishy passive, and he and Downey don’t act as if they share a bloodline or fraught past. The younger actor seems suitably awed by his venerable co-star, but there’s no echo of Duvall’s craggy plainness or his sharp, avian profile in Downey’s bright-eyed glibness.
The other actors give solid, fat-paycheck performances — the sort that enable them to do projects they care about. Vera Farmiga has a salty waitress turn as the gal Hank bailed on (they don’t match up, either), Vincent D’Onofrio is the older brother whose baseball career Hank played a role in ruining, and Jeremy Strong wanders in and out of the action as the addled younger brother whose incessant videotaping of events looks to be a factor in the climax. (It isn’t, but it factors into the dark corners of the family’s past.) The showoff supporting performance is Billy Bob Thornton’s, as the prosecutor who comes from the big city, largely to humiliate Hank. Thornton is sleek and beady-eyed, his white hair swept back, his demeanor brrrrry cold. The character is more complex than he first appears, but for most of the film, he’s used as a slick villain to raise your blood pressure.
The thing to hang onto in The Judge is that small towns represent upright American values and that cities are where you go to toss away your moral compass. Also, that Robert Downey Jr. likes to play slippery hipsters who realize the full extent of their aloneness and resolve to slip no more. If he isn’t on some basic level boring the hell out of himself, he’s not the actor I think he is.