Considering how stoked I initially was about movie, it’s jarring just how incredibly underwhelming to sit trough this turned out to be. Going by the trailer and plot synopsis, this seemed like a sure thing. Robert Down Jr. playing off Robert Duvall, the core of the story being a difficult father/son relationship finding closure in the midst of a tough court room case where the prodigal son has to defend his father… Everything sounded so perfect, you just knew it’d be an incredibly comfy law/family drama to watch. Yet somewhere along the way it all went horribly wrong and what you actually ended up with was two and a half hours being robbed from you. Okay, that’s a bit harsh, but you get the picture. It is frustrating just how little the movie manages to achieve in that amount of time. Thankfully the storytelling is competent enough that you never grow bored with the movie, but even at the best of times there is hardly ever anything of note happening on screen. Stuff happens, but you never really connect with it that much.
Considering how the movie is called the Judge and the main plot circles around Robert Duvall, the father, being on trial for murder, it’s surprising how boring the actual courtroom scenes end up being. One would expect some level of electricity in the air when the town’s own judge is out on trial, but nah, not really. The stakes in the case feels almost superfluous all the way through, they might as well be on trial for unpaid parking tickets. It’s not that much of an exaggeration to describe the court portion of the plot to be akin to watching paint dry. There’s just nothing remotely interesting happening in these scenes aside from this small moment e where Billy Bob Thornton is shown having this really cool looking gimmick mug from which he drinks water from. Yes, that’s right. A mug is the most exciting thing inside the courtroom, despite Thornton playing a prosecutor who specifically takes charge of the case because he’s got kinda of a grudge against RDJ due to Downey Jr. being this sleazy top dollar lawyer specializing in getting crooks out of serving jail terms. You have this really nice set up for some juicy animosity between Downey and Thornton, but you never see any of it even slightly play out in the movie, in or out of courtroom. It’s entirely ignored after being set up.
The movie also has a delightful token romance subplot with Vera Farmiga, who plays RDJ’s ex-girlfriend from high school, which actually had potential, after you get over the cliché of the male lead re-connecting and rekindling feelings with his high school sweetheart. But even that is ultimately ruined when we suddenly get this completely weird, out of nowhere subplot about possible incest when it’s revealed that the girl Downey was shown making out with earlier in the movie might be his and Vera’s daughter that Vera just never told RDJ about. It’s such an odd curve ball to thrown into the story. And what’s worse, it kinda just gets served as this side dish plot twist that then isn’t properly followed up for the longest time directly, so it just has to sit there in the background, waiting, while all the more important court stuff happens. The whole closure, if you can call it that, for the subplot is the twist that Vera actually had a small fling with Downey’s brother right after Downey left the town, so RDJ didn’t actually make out with his own daughter, just his niece, which means it was still kinda incestuous, and that’s basically the end of it. And it gets better, after the subplot is introduced, the possible daughter herself I don’t think even shows up again, not even once, for the rest of the movie. I mean seriously, what the hell? It was like they just wanted to do some kind of a twist version of the old “protagonist has a daughter he never knew about” trope but then immediately afterwards lost all interest. So, why even have it in the movie in the first place? I just don’t get it.
The actual ending of the movie is pretty awful too. While it does sort of avoid being too sappy, the conclusion doesn’t really give much closure, or the appropriate”feels” that would fit this type of a story when the dad dies. I was actually half-expecting Downey to quit his lucrative L.A. job and become a judge in his father’s place in his hometown but thankfully nothing as cliché as that actually takes place, though the last scene in the courtroom could kinda allude to it. The ending leaves you unsatisfied, just like everything else in the movie.
Nothing really underlines the banality of this movie better than the realization that the highlight was when the credits started and Willie Nelson sang a pretty nice cover of Coldplay’s “the Scientist.”