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Film review: The Judge

The movie touches tenderly on the pressures of parental expectation and, just when you’ve settled into the formulaic plotting, there are a few welcome, darker curveballs.
Robert Downey Jr, left, as Hank Palmer and Robert Duvall, right, as his father Joseph Palmer in The Judge. Courtesy Warner Bros
Robert Downey Jr, left, as Hank Palmer and Robert Duvall, right, as his father Joseph Palmer in The Judge. Courtesy Warner Bros

Director: David Dobkin

Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga

Three stars

Here’s a scary fact: Robert Downey Jr was recently named the best-paid actor in Hollywood for a second year running. According to Forbes, between June 2012 and June 2014, the actor earned a pay packet of US$150 million (Dh551 million).

With a steady film-a-year workload of late, it’s clear the bulk of that wealth has been amassed from playing a single character: Tony Stark / Iron Man. Record-breaking blockbusters The Avengers and Iron Man 3 sit among the six highest-grossing movies ever made.

It’s easy to imagine Downey Jr signed on to The Judge – his first lead of this year and his second production credit – alongside Hollywood royalty Robert Duvall to inject some serious-acting credibility back into his career.

If that’s the case, it wasn’t an entirely foolish move. This heartstrings-pulling family drama gives Downey Jr an ample selection of temper tantrums and scene- chewing soliloquies to shine.

Historically, the courtroom has been well utilised by Hollywood to offer pulse-quickening tension. Here, the director David Dobkin – in an about-turn from previous credits, including lightweight comedies such as Wedding Crashers and The Change-Up – milks that genre in tandem with another tried-and-tested staple: the return of the prodigal son.

Downey Jr is in easy territory as Henry “Hank” Palmer, a fast-talking, conscience-free Chicago lawyer. But soon the mask slips. Hank is going through a divorce from an unfaithful wife and the death of his mother triggers the journey home to Indiana, back to the father from whom he fled, a self-righteous but much-loved judge (Duvall) who has watched over the small town for 42 years.

During the course of a 24-hour visit, Hank buries his mother, stops a bar fight, bumps into a former girlfriend and plans to jump on the next flight out of town.

Then disaster strikes. On the night of the funeral, dad gets involved in a hit-and-run with a former convict he sent down years ago. A murder charge looms and, of course, only the big-city lawyer is up to the job.

What follows is an overwrought mix of voice-raising melodrama, cloying sentimentality and easy comic relief, scattered throughout a typically box-ticking script.

But at times there is more at play. The movie touches tenderly on the pressures of parental expectation and, just when you’ve settled into the formulaic plotting, there are a few welcome, darker curveballs.

However, it’s the performances that really raise this beyond the instantly forgettable. For all his easy charm, Downey Jr is convincing as the insecure, guilt-consumed son.

But it’s a career-defining portrait of old age from Duvall, 83, for which this film will best be remembered.

rgarratt@thenational.ae

Updated: October 15, 2014 04:00 AM

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