Robert Downey Jr. (remember what I said about genre movie stars?) plays Henry “Hank” Palmer, a sleazy and amoral defense attorney working in Chicago. He is the best that money can buy, which usually means he’s representing white-collar criminals (“Innocent people can’t afford me.”). He has a stellar track record, a beautiful home, a gorgeous wife, and an adorable little daughter. But during the midst of defending a money-launderer, he is called away to his home town in Indiana due to his mother’s death. He is forced to reunite with his long out-of-touch family; his dad specifically, whom he hasn’t talked to in years. But when his father (the county judge) is put on trial for murder, Hank has to put aside his enmity in order to defend his father.
Like I said before, this movie is pure Oscar bait. It is a depressing but also uplifting drama, and it stars an actor primarily known for his work in superhero films in a “serious” role. There’s lots of courtroom drama and tension, a sad ending, and lots of emphasis on the importance of family. But, there’s also a lot that this movie is missing. Primarily, a plot that is not completely and utterly predictable. I understand that’s there’s only so many things you can do with a story based around a trial, but still, I was pretty bored through most of it. It’s not that it’s bad exactly, but you can see the end coming from a mile away. Come to think of it, you can easily figure out the entire plot of the movie from about the first ten to fifteen minutes.
There’s also a number of strange things the movie does have that I wish it didn’t. The film tries to insert some slices of comic relief into the film to prevent the audience from being too down about the inevitable downer ending. While this is a laudable goal, for some reason the screenwriter thought the best way to go about this was to make a whole bunch of jokes about incest. Seriously, it’s really weird to switch between dramatic courtroom scenes and jokes about Robert Downey Jr. making out with a girl who may be his daughter. Also, the beginning of the film has the obligatory shot of Downey Jr. driving through fields of endless wheat, but for some reason the scene is actually CGI. It’s really obvious and poor-quality CGI and totally breaks the suspension of disbelief. Finally, the film plays the Bon Iver song “Holocene” over two depressing scenes, because apparently the filmmakers had enough money to hire Iron Man but not get the rights to two different dramatic songs (and this is coming from someone who loves Bon Iver). I probably sound like I’m nit-picking things, and I very well may be, but they were all highly obvious and extremely annoying, and they are unforgivable in a film that so obviously aims for the Academy. The little things are important, especially when the big things like plot are not good enough to forgive smaller flaws.
At the end of the day though, The Judge is not a horrible film. Sure, it’s extremely predictable and has a number of flaws. But the acting is not awful, and the story does manage to pull the heartstrings even if you can clearly see everything coming. The Judge was clearly written as Oscar Bait, and if you enjoy those types of films you may very well enjoy this. Just be well-aware that it is at the far lower end of that category. This is not the film that will get Downey Jr. his Oscar.
Oh, and Hollywood, please don’t use Western Massachusetts as a substitute for the Midwest. No one is buying that Shelburne Falls is actually Indiana, and again it’s really obvious and annoying. Like I said, the little things matter.