The Judge

Year: 2014
Production Co: Team Downey
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: David Dobkin
Producer: Robert Downey Jr, Susan Downey, David Gambino
Writer: Nick Schenk/Bill Dubuque/David Dobkin (Story)
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D'Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Billy Bob Thornton

There's been some negative comment around about the mawkishness of this movie, but you know what there is to like about it? It's got movie stars playing roles that rely on characterisation, drama and emotion to tell a story for (and about) grown ups. There's no CGI, no superheroes and it's not a sequel and trying to push a line of toys and Happy Meal tie ins. We see this sort of $30-40m (in spirit if not actual dollar amount) drama on screen far too seldom nowadays.

Yes it's a little manipulative and a little hokey, with its oft-trod story of an estranged family telling us what's really important. But it not only works, it moves into territory few gilded Hollywood dramas of the genre's golden era (think Terms of Endearment and Kramer vs Kramer) ever did. Anyone who's ever had an elderly father will cringe and maybe even cry a bit at the bathroom scene, and Duvall proves himself a master of his game by taking part in it for the good of the story.

Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr) has left his small-town home and become a successful and emotionally empty hotshot lawyer in Chicago. When his mother dies and he's called back home for her funeral, it opens every can of worms he thought he'd forgotten.

Most of them are familial. For starters, his older brother Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) has stayed behind to care for their mentally disabled younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong). His relationship with his father Joseph (Robert Duvall), an esteemed judge in town, is frosty at best. Hank's first re-acquaintance with Joseph's estimation of him is when his father hugs all the mourners at the wake and shakes Hank's hand.

But the other memories he finds are nicer, such as the affair he cut short with the café owner Sam (Vera Farmiga). Either way, Hank means to leave town as soon as he can, but just as he's about to the cops show up looking for Joseph. A young local man has been killed in a hit and run, and Joseph's car has blood on it.

Hank knows he has no choice but to stay and defend his father, the case made even more difficult because of increasing evidence Joseph might be slipping into dementia. And with prosecutor Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) gunning for the Palmer family, the kind of case Hank eats for breakfast at home in his high-powered life becomes anything but easy.

Like the movies mentioned above when this kind of thing was a cinematic staple, The Judge is an easy mix of laughs and painful home truths. It never gets too dark, it's earnest, authentic, has its heart in the right place and achieves what it sets out to do perfectly.

Unfortunately, it's also another example of a movie that should have performed better and convinced the Hollywood powers that be audiences want more of this kind of thing.

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