The latest movie from Robert Downey, Jr. is only the third non-Marvel, non-Sherlock Holmes leading role he’s had since 2009, and of the three, it’s the worst of the bunch, which is saying something considering how marginal Due Date and The Soloist were. With The Judge, however, it feels like RDJ is trying to catch up on lost time by making all the movies he’s wanted make since 2009 at the same time and and cramming them into what ultimately ends up as a gloppy, unsatisfying mess. It may have a big heart, but it’s bleeding and oozy, it looks like it’s pinched into a rib cage too small for it. I say that as someone who has both an incredible fondness for RDJ and a much stronger stomach for sentimentality than most. If you ever want your feelings for Richard Curtis films validated, I’m your critic.
The Judge, unfortunately, is a lousy, badly written, poorly conceived film, and not even the considerable talents of RDJ and Robert Duvall can save it, although it might have had a better shot at marginal success if it had stuck with only one or two movies instead of a litany of them.
Here’s a list of films that The Judge is trying to be all at once:
Garden State — Estranged son Hank Palmer (RDJ) returns home after a long absence when a parent dies. He and his father had not spoken in 20 years.
Doc Hollywood — Hot shot big city lawyer gets stuck in his country bumpkin hometown in Indiana for a number of weeks, and is both repelled by and ultimately fond of the local yokels.
A Grisham Thriller — While at home for his mother’s funeral, his father Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) — a local judge for over 40 years — is accused of murder. Hank ends up defending him along with a local yokel played by Dax Shepard.
A Cancer Movie — Turns out, Hank’s Dad also has cancer, and we get to see the all-too-real consequences of his chemotherapy treatments (there’s a unsettling scene in which Joseph shits himself and Hank has to clean him up), which — at this point — already feels like overkill.
Rain Man — Hank also has an autistic brother (Jeremy Strong), who has a strange obsession with creating and watching home videos, which allows us some flashbacks into the younger lives of the family without actually using flashbacks (although, flashbacks are also employed throughout the film).
Sad Sack Movie — Vincent D’Onofrio plays Hank’s older brother, who ended up staying in their hometown and taking care of the family after his professional baseball career was derailed by a car accident. He’s a little bitter.
Grosse Point Blank — You know that quirky romance between Minnie Driver and John Cusack in Grosse Point Blank where they kind of slide back into their old romance even though they hadn’t seen each other in a decade? Same thing here, only it’s been two decades, and the high-school girlfriend is played by Vera Farmiga.
Biological Parent Mystery — There’s also another woman that Hank ends up making out with played by Leighton Meester, who we later discover is the daughter of Hank’s high school girlfriend played by Farmiga (above). There’s some question about whether Meester’s character is the daughter of Hank, which would mean retroactive make-out incest.
Kramer vs. Kramer — For good measure, Hank is also going through a divorce, and there is some question about who will get custody of his daughter, who visits him out in Indiana in one of several completely unnecessary subplots.
Revenge Tale — The man that Judge Palmer is accused of murdering is someone who the Judge made the mistake of letting off too easily, which resulted in the death of that man’s girlfriend. Judge Palmer never forgave himself, and loathed the man he is accused of killing.
Needless to say, none of the above ten films are any good, although the Grisham movie is slightly less awful than the rest of them, if only because Billy Bob Thornton gives it some oiliness while Dax Shepard provides a modicum comic relief (mostly in the form of frequent vomiting).
If the film had completely shed all the romantic entanglements, the Rain Man subplot, and even the cancer storyline, it might have been a serviceable legal thriller centered on a man trying to repair his relationship with his father in the midst of a murder trial. Instead, The Judge is a two-and-a-half-hour snoozer anchored by two actors who are better than the material provided, and yet unable to transcend the tropes and cliches a dump truck backed up and unloaded into the laps of RDJ and Duvall.