Did you know Robert Downey, Jr. has been nominated for an Oscar twice?
Yes, back in 1992, the man who would be Iron Man was nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal of silent film star Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin. Not long after that, Downey would soon be better known for his drug addictions and his trips back-and-forth to rehab and jail, events which would make him the perfect candidate for bringing womanizing, boozing weapons designer Tony Stark to the big screen in 2008.
That same year Downey nabbed his second nomination for playing Kirk Lazarus in Ben Stiller’s Hollywood-skewering satire Tropic Thunder. Downey spent most of the movie in blackface, satirizing “method” actors who undergo huge physical and personal changes to get into character. This potentially bad idea managed to get Downey a Best Supporting Actor nod, an impressive feat considering comedies never get a fair shake at the Oscars. And it was Robert Downey, Jr. who did that.
Good actors can make what could be terrible ideas for movies and spin gold from them. They can also take predictable scripts and elevate them in a way that might as well make them a magician. Very few actors alive today can pull that off, and Downey’s one of them. The Judge, his latest outing not backed by Marvel, is a courtroom/family-issues drama that pairs him with Oscar Winner Robert Duvall and a somewhat predictable script, and he brings the drama. It’s a reminder of what Downey is capable of without the Iron Man suit.
Downey is Hank Palmer, and Duvall is Judge Joseph Palmer. Hank, a big-time lawyer with ambiguous morals, a winning track record and a failing marriage in Chicago, finds himself back in Carlinville, Indiana when his mother passed away. He’s reunited with his two brothers – tire shop owner Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio, a.k.a. Edgar/Edgar!Bug) and film-obsessed Aspie Dale (Jeremy Strong) – and The Judge. Things have been frosty between The Judge and Hank since the younger Palmer was a teenager.
Things start going south in Carlinville when The Judge finds himself on the other side of the law; the local police question him in regards to a fatal hit-and-run involving a sick bastard The Judge put away for 20 years. Hank offers his services to The Judge, doing his damnedest to get his father off, but the underlying anger between them doesn’t help.
As a courtroom drama, The Judge is actually riveting. As a family drama though, you can usually see the plot points coming. Hank reunites with old flame Samantha (Vera Farmiga of Up in the Air) while in town, fretting over the possibility that her daughter (Leighton Meester) is also his daughter. At the beginning, Hank’s soon-to-be-ex-wife lists off a bunch of clichéd issues signaling that Hank is a workaholic, absentee dad as the reason she cheated on him. And then there are scenes of The Judge and Hank screaming at each other regarding perceived slights followed immediately by scenes of them bonding that throw the mood out of whack. Despite these shortcomings storywise, Downey and Duvall and the rest of the cast sell it in a way that legitimately moves you.
The film is also peppered with funny moments, such as Hank’s (literal) dickwaving at rival lawyer Mike Kattan (a chubby David Krumholtz of The Newsroom and Numbers) at the beginning, his first encounter with Sam’s daughter which becomes funnier as the film goes on, and the hapless small-town attorney The Judge hires initially, played by Parenthood’s Dax Shepard. Shepard’s role as C.P. Kennedy is quite a surprise; I’ve never seen Frito act so naïve.
And then there’s Dwight Dickham, played by Billy Bob Thorton. A prosecutor who went up against Hank years ago and lost, he rolls into town in defense of the hit-and-run victim, looking to put the hurt on Hank and The Judge. Thorton is brilliant. He’s not a sleazeball like Hank is in the beginning, which only makes him far more intimidating. Thorton is legitimately scary, though as the film progresses, you come to realize he has the same respect of the law that The Judge does.
Be aware, though. The Judge, though it does not sound much different from a family drama or a courtroom drama, is not a film to be taken lightly, and that’s all thanks to the work of a superb cast. It will tug at you in ways you could not predict. 7/10.