Before Robert Downey Jr. became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood thanks to his turn in Iron Man, he had a great track record showcasing his talent with films like Chaplin. In between his blockbuster Marvel franchise appearances he has delivered a few roles here and there, but his latest, The Judge finally gets him back in the lead of a full on drama putting him side by side with a great cast including Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, Billy Bob Thornton, and Vincent D’Onofrio. The star power and talent is here, but does this courtroom family drama have the substance worthy of the talent or is this a case not worth going to trial?
The Judge follows a big city lawyer who returns to his childhood home for his mother’s funeral, but before he can leave home, father, the town’s judge, is suspected of murder. He sets out to discover the truth and, along the way, looks to reconnect with his estranged family. Downey is such a relaxed cool guy on screen people often forget how great an actor he is. With this film Downey gets to stretch his legs and go all in getting the chance to display a wide range of emotions brilliantly in one of his best performances in some time. Make no mistake, we all love him as Tony Stark, but this character has so many more layers to play with and it is hard to imagine anyone else bringing the amount of focus and perfection to the role that he did. On the other side of the coin you have the always brilliant Robert Duvall who brings his usual perfection to the role and makes for the perfect sparring partner to Downey. They have so many great scenes together with one in particular showcasing so much emotion and vulnerability that it is both heartbreaking and brilliant all at once. This sequence also shows a trust the actors have in each other and the director to bring this scene to light that could have been watered down, but is such an important moment between them that it had to be allowed to happen and it is executed perfectly. The rest of the cast do a fine job as well, although some of them don’t always serve a bigger point to the overall story and could have been trimmed down to give the movie more streamlined runtime.
The courtroom sequences are great to watch, but understand that these are secondary to the main story. The biggest focus to the film is the family issues and dynamic between not just Downey and Duvall, but also with rekindling his relationship with his brothers and a possible budding relationship with a former flame. These parts of the stories are important in allowing the viewer to better understand the issues between them and the man that he has become, but at times get lost in the bigger point of the story making it not always necessary. There is another subplot in the relationship side of it all that while funny serves no purpose to the film and really has no point in this film. The courthouse sequences are few, but really engaging as Downey goes head to head with Billy Bob Thornton. Both of these guys bring their A-game in these scenes bringing a relaxed tone to their banter without ever really attacking each other. There is no big secret or reveal within the trial it is pretty straight forward, but coupled with all of the other aspects to the story it makes for an overall great film.
While there are flaws here and there within the side moments to this film it still manages to leave a pretty big impact. This is a deep family drama at its core that just happens to use the courtroom to play out some of its baggage and it works. If you are itching to see two powerful performances then check out this film for Downey and Duvall alone, but stay for the compelling dysfunctional family drama that takes a hearing to a whole new level.