Two words that come to mind when considering The Judge are generic and predictable. It's also well-intentioned and earnest (perhaps to a fault). There are some good scenes and instances of strong acting but the project as a whole is so familiar that it feels like a collage of moments and scenes from other, better films. Although there are times when it taps into a vein of heartfelt drama, there are as many instances when it veers dangerously close to becoming manipulative pap. The film's lack of ambition is distressing, especially when one considers the quality of the actors involved. In fact, there are times when the performances are good enough to overcome the screenplay's inherent weaknesses but one can't help but wish the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, and Vincent D'Onofrio had been provided with something more worthy of their thespian abilities. This is an easy paycheck for them all: an overlong crowd-pleaser that mistakes a hackneyed catharsis for something more meaningful.
The Judge is yet another movie about a prodigal son coming home for the funeral of a parent. In this case, the son in question is Hank (Downey Jr.), a hotshot big city lawyer whose return to his roots in rural Carlinsville, Indiana is anathema to him. Still living there are his brothers (Vincent D'Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) and his estranged father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), with whom he hasn't spoken since leaving to make his reputation. While Hank is in town paying his final respects to Mom, Dad is arrested for murder. The accusation seems laughable at first but, as the facts emerge, it becomes clear that more than the judge's legacy is at stake. After initially rebuffing his son's offer to represent him, the judge relents and Hank brings his experience and flair to Carlinsville's biggest legal theater.
The Judge is never really about whether Joseph is innocent or guilty. His crime (or lack thereof) is a red herring - an excuse to keep father and son together for a while and give them reasons to interact and remember the good times they had before their relationship frosted over. (These are primarily illustrated via old home movie clips rather than flashbacks, although there are instances of the latter as well.) The movie features two themes: the big city/small town culture clash that defines Hank's past and present and the healing of his fractious relationship with the judge. The "mystery" of what happened on the night of the murder is treated as a secondary concern.
Director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus) is a purveyor of lowbrow mainstream fluff and, although this digs a little deeper than his usual fare, it constructs interpersonal relationships out of clichés. The storyline is obvious and never veers from its expected trajectory: hostile son returns home with a chip on his shoulder only to discover that, though interaction with his family and an old flame, he may have left behind his humanity when he hit the big time. In the meantime, he goes through the process of reconnecting with his father. As far as it goes, the story is reasonably well told but it doesn't go anywhere that's surprising or interesting.
Robert Downey Jr., who's widely recognized as one of the half-dozen best actors currently working, gives a performance that's a little too showy to be believable. He says all the lines, conveys all the emotions, and makes us laugh at his occasional jokes, but we never fully lose sight of Downey Jr. Robert Duvall, on the other hand, inhabits the character of the judge fully and completely. His low-key intensity is in direct contrast with Downey Jr.'s flamboyance. Some of the supporting actors give impressive turns in small roles: an underused Vera Farmiga as Hank's ex-girlfriend, Vincent D'Onofrio as Hank's older sibling, Billy Bob Thornton as the prosecuting attorney, and Leighton Meester as a young girl with a possible connection to Hank.
It's hard not to see The Judge through the same lens that one views the likes of August: Osage County, This Is Where I Leave You, and even Nebraska: all films about people who return to their roots after trying hard to forget where they came from. Due to its unwillingness to do the heavy lifting necessary to explore true emotions, The Judge provides a lesser telling of this same basic story. To some extent, the performances (especially those of Duvall and Farmiga) make this a journey worth taking despite the shortcomings, but it's hard to deny the frustration of seeing so little accomplished with the assembled talent. The Judge could have been great, but it's merely palatable.