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Review: Robert Downey Jr. tries, fails to fun up the bloated 'The Judge'

In "The Judge," Robert Downey Jr. plays a hotshot city lawyer defending his estranged, small town father (Robert Duvall) during a murder trial.

Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall and Dax Shepard go to court in "The Judge." Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall and Dax Shepard go to court in "The Judge."
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

‘The Judge’
Director: David Dobkin
Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

What is “The Judge”? Is it an old school moving drama about familial reconnection and an urban workaholic learning to reconnect with his small town roots? Or is it a smartass, anti-sentimental, sometimes loopy Robert Downey Jr. vehicle in the guise of same? That it can’t decide is its saving grace, but only to a point. It takes on the language of a classic heartwarmer, but it wants to be too cool for that. It wants to be an honest look at family, but it also needs to have a cute kid come in and cute things up for a bit — and so on and so forth. And it’s way weirder than it perhaps even realizes.

Downey Jr. is Hank, a hotshot lawyer, both shark and standup comic, who’s forced to return to his quaint, small Indiana town when his mom dies. That means he has to reconnect with his estranged family, towered over by the fearsome, Reagan-defending Joe (Robert Duvall). While home, dad is suspected of murdering a man he once put away. Joe is stubborn and so is Hank, but Hank reluctantly finds himself compelled to defend his estranged pops, even as the evidence gradually suggests his guilt. Oh, and one more thing: Joe [record scratch] is a judge!

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For what it’s worth, there are no “you can’t handle the truth”-style outbursts, though it’s still silly enough to convey how tough the defense attorney (Billy Bob Thornton) is by making him have his own metal water cup. (Scary!) Downey Jr. does have fun in the early stretches as Hank picks apart Joe’s original, cheap, inexperienced lawyer (Dax Shepard). There’s even a potentially rich ethics problem here: Joe, as it turns out, is on the brink of total senility, a condition he hid for a year while still doling out sentences. He actually wants to be imprisoned, as he feels a murder rap is a better for his legacy than being mentally deficient. (This doesn’t make much sense, but we’ll allow it.)

Oh look, Robert Downey Jr. is in a movie with a kid, in "The Judge." Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures Oh look, Robert Downey Jr. is in a movie with a kid, in "The Judge."
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

But it keeps getting distracted, and this debate doesn’t so much resolve itself as peter out. In fact, it gets pretty strange. There’s a subplot where Hank reconnects with an old flame (Vera Farmiga). But the filmmakers want to show they’re hip enough to not do yet another one of those storylines. So they give her a young adult kid (Leighton Meester) Hank drunkenly made out with earlier — who [louder record scratch] may in fact be his secret daughter. This is meant to be fun and edgy, but instead comes off as creepy and misjudged, and the resolution is only marginally less weird. Farmiga is reliably game and flirty, but no great actor could sell too-much lines like, “I’m going to go play with myself. I’ll be thinking of you.” It’s like a teenager’s idea of sexy banter.

Because it’s almost 2 ½ hours long — and features such digressions as a tornado sequence — “The Judge,” mathematically speaking, should occasionally click. But it never does. It’s two roads zigzagging parallel to each other without ever connecting. Downey Jr. seems committed to being in a Downey Jr. movie, while the movie keeps trying to lure him back with things he doesn’t want to do. It’s alternately saccharine, with a sickly score, and wannabe funny, though the jokes try too hard. (Farmiga’s character owns a waterside restaurant called “Thyme by the River,” which, you know, isn’t even a saying.) The best-case scenario for this script would be to have been completely taken over by its star, but no one’s manning this ship.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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