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Order In The Court - And Beyond With The Judge

Updated on April 2, 2015

A funeral brings an unhappy reunion of a family in The Judge. Robert Downey, Jr., stars as Hank Palmer, an Indiana-born lawyer who found great success as a litigator in Chicago. One day, he gets a call from his brother Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio), letting him know that their mother has died. Hank flies home to Carlinville, Indiana, where he was raised, but left once he entered law school. In Carlinville, Hank's father, Joseph (Robert Duvall), remains the chief judge of the town court, dispensing tough justice. With Glen raising a family and managing a tire store, Joseph now has the main responsibility to raise Hank's other brother, the mentally challenged Dale Palmer (Jeremy Strong), by himself. Judge Palmer seems unhappy to see Hank, whom he feels should have returned to Carlinville after getting a law degree. Hank, who is about to get divorced, reconnects with Sam Powell (Vera Farmiga), who now owns a restaurant and has a grown daughter, Carla (Leighton Meester).

On a grocery trip, Joseph gets into an accident where where a bicyclist named Mark Blackwell (Mark Kiely), loses his life. Instead of getting help and staying at the scene, Joseph goes home and parks his car in the garage. The sons discover the front end damage, and start to ask questions before the police. Judge Palmer won't answer questions regarding his state of mind, in spite of his status as a former drinker and Hank's observation about Joseph's recollection. Dale also makes an observation about his father that is uncharacteristic about the judge. Once Joseph is arrested and charged with Blackwell's death, he hires local attorney C. P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard), who has no experience in such cases, and Judge Stanford White (Ken Howard) comes from another town to preside. The prosecution brings Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) from Gary to see that Judge Palmer gets convicted for Blackwell's murder. When Kennedy proves ineffective in pre-trial motions, Joseph gets Hank to take a leave of absence from his work in Chicago and serve as co-counsel. As he defends his father, Hank learns more about the past between Judge Palmer and Blackwell, and makes a case for some extenuating circumstances.

I didn't get a chance to see The Judge when it played in theaters, and I'm glad I skipped it when it played there. The Judge is a cliche-riddled movie where viewers can't sympathize for characters, who care more about their own situations than anything else. Judge Palmer has never forgiven Hank for not returning to Carlinville, Sam has had a bit of a grudge about the way things ended between herself and Hank, and Hank himself considers his flesh and blood to be a bit of an annoyance, save for Dale. Only during his extended stay in his boyhood home does Hank bring his daughter Lauren (Emma Tremblay) to meet his family. The flat script comes from Bill Dubuque, making his screenplay debut, and Nick Schenck, whose previous script was for a much better drama entitled Gran Torino. The direction comes from David Dobkin, who's done better work with light comedies like Shanghai Knights and Wedding Crashers. Dobkin may not be the best comic director, but he's clearly out of place in this picture.

I know that filmmakers don't need to know geography to make a film, but I noticed a couple of mistakes in the film that most people would not. The town of Carlinville is located south of Indianapolis, yet Judge Palmer makes his fateful grocery trip to a store on US 30, located much closer to the Michigan border than to Indianapolis. Also, filmmakers tend to portray people from Gary as people with southern accents, as others did in the movie Original Gangstas. While I understand that some Gary residents moved there from points further south, I also know that most of them don't speak with the accent that Dwight does. That part of the state has speech patterns more influenced by our neighbors in Chicago than our neighbors in Louisville.

Solid acting is found here, in spite of all other film issues. Downey has the airs of a hot shot as Hank, often flustering a prosecuting attorney in Chicago. He comes to Carlinville and discovers nobody really cares about his career resume. His parting hurt many, and Dickham is as confident in getting a conviction as Hank is in getting an acquittal. Duvall, in his Oscar-nominated performance as Judge Palmer, has been the face of justice in Carlinville for many years, and shows how tough he can be on a deadbeat dad who can't pay his ex child support, yet go and buy a truck for himself. Yet, Joseph also has worries about his legacy in the town when the facts about an old case and his current state threaten to tarnish that legacy. He may be a very opinionated man, remembering key shortcomings about Hank, but he still has concerns about a fair outcome in his trial. The other performances are fine, but not particularly distinctive.

Every family has issues, and issues have driven a wedge between the members of the Palmer family. When Hank Palmer comes home, he finds his father in a situation where he needs a skilled defense attorney to answer some serious questions about his behavior. The Judge presents a situation where too many people show too much pride and hold too many grudges to make me care much about its key characters. The drama is a typical courtroom drama, where the facts aren't as simple as they seem. It's not that I want a legal drama to make the facts simple and irrefutable, but I want to care about the outcome. The Judge just didn't deliver sufficient interest from opening gavel to closing gavel.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give The Judge two stars. My verdict: Guilty of banality.


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