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The Judge ***

Is it worth $10? Yes

Lost in Robert Downey Jr.’s “Iron”-clad career resurgence is his dramatic talent, which people will expect but not really receive in “The Judge.” As Tony Stark in lawyer clothing, Downey’s Hank Palmer is a hotshot Chicago defense attorney who wants nothing to do with his small hometown of Carlinville, Indiana. As someone who grew up in a small town and now lives in a big city, I think he’s being a bit harsh, but I digress. 

Hank’s mom dies. Upon his reluctant return to Carlinville old wounds reopen: His estranged and judgmental father, town judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), has little to say to him, older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) doesn’t know how to treat him, and old flame Sam (Vera Farmiga) can’t help herself around him. Only Hank’s youngest brother Dale (Jeremy Strong) is happy Hank’s around, and Dale is mentally challenged. Throw in his own impending divorce and a daughter (Emma Tremblay) he knows he doesn’t see enough of and Hank’s life is a complete mess.

And it’s about to get worse. Hank’s father, affectionately and respectfully called “Judge” by all who know him, is accused of murder, and Judge’s choice of lawyer (Dax Shepard) isn’t up to snuff against prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton). Hank never says why he helps the father he despises so much, but he stays in town and takes the case.

As a legal drama “The Judge” is unimpressive, as many of the courtroom sequences lack punch. The so-called dramatic scenes we do have underuse Thornton’s one-dimensional prosecutor and render more of a “what the?” verdict from viewers than they do suspense. The saving grace is that not much time is spent inside the courtroom, as most of the actions happen in the Judge’s home and various parts of the town Hank can’t stand.

It is here that writers Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque fair considerably better. The Palmer family’s backstory is well thought-out and moving, effectively allowing us to understand why the resentment would grow for so many years, and how even an innocent verdict for the Judge could be irrelevant to the salvation of this clan. Duvall is strong as the stubborn patriarch, but expectedly it’s Downey’s unconquerable charm and vulnerability that keeps us intrigued as the story unfolds.

If only there was slightly less story. Director David Dobkin (“Wedding Crashers,” “Fred Claus”) is so consumed with Hank’s myriad issues – and there are many more than what’s included here – that the run time bloats to 141 minutes, which is too much for its own good. Still, Dobkin succeeds in showcasing his best asset – the ensemble – by staying out of the actors’ way and allowing the material to speak for itself. It may not always work in terms of structure, tone and expedience, but it works often enough to be a solid drama.

Did you know? 

At one point Hank references Atticus Finch from “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Duvall made his movie debut in the “To Kill A Mockingbird” movie in 1962.

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