The kitchen sink gets hurled at the Courtroom in director David Dobkin’s The Judge. Early on, it seems a trifling, unworkable hybrid as the layers of Atticus Finch and 12 Angry Men-style judicial posturing are sucked dry, absorbed by the sponge of dull, domestic drudgery.
This sponge comes in the form of Robert Downey Jnr. as Hank Palmer, the judge’s (Robert Duvall) middle son and a concept grounded in some of the most loathsome characters of contemporary cinema. Hank Palmer is a hotshot lawyer, last defender of the guilty, who does not give a damn, literally pissing on his legal opponents within the glass palaces of ‘The Big City’. George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham, a high-flying, professional-firing, cool cat in 2009’s Up in the Air is the closest comparison, but there are shades of McConaughey’s Hanna in the Wolf of Wall Street. Hank Palmer is the embodiment of self-satisfied fellatio in the form of a sharp suit and sparkling shades; the replacement armour for a heartless Man of Iron.
Hank Palmer, like Up in the Air’s Bingham, is a man desperate to escape the bounds, not bonds of his Indiana family, deeming relations an anchor to ground you down, not ground. Of course, this being Hollywood, a reversal is on the cards and the film takes most of its near two and a half hours working towards this inevitability. The film wears its influences heartily on the sleeve in the composition of the Palmer family. With the presence of youngest son, Dale (Jeremy Strong), who suffers from autism, Rain Man is a point of comparison. Only trade the touching reconnection of estranged sons for Tom Cruise’s narcissist, plunging back into his hometown and revelling in a series of Big-style adolescent activities, without the loveable innocence of Tom Hanks’ character. These range from the humdrum to the hilarious as Hank (not Hanks!) breaks into a restaurant or crashes his bike, hands free, but sporting a pink-sleeved Metallica t-shirt.
The comedy suffers from the failure of a film trying to be wilfully funny alongside director Dobkin’s propensity for the puerile: puking and pissing are a staple. Meanwhile the storyline, as Judge Palmer is himself put on murder trial and the only saviour is his estranged lawyer son Hank (Downey Jnr.), comes with a giant bumper sticker, marked PLOT. Though The Judge veers between a half-hearted, both atriums, attempt at humour to a quarter-hearted, single ventricle, veneer of judicial realism, the real heart of the film is in the family.
As startlingly soft as it may sound, the fact is the archetypal themes of love, loss and redemption are handled delicately and so where the film finds strength. Through the prism of the family, these stereotypes are raised out of the cells and into liberating light. The Judge provides a fine portrait of the complexities of family life; from the open secrets to the closed truths of an organic subject matter. Often in these forms of film, family is an afterthought; the domestic comes doused in dogma, depicting a farce, a kind of caricatured ‘ironic’ ridicule or so abjectly boring as to be a mere sideshow to the main action. Directors and screenwriters must feel a sense of compulsion that transforms into a reluctance to deal with the distraction of real life. The exception is Linklater’s Boyhood, eighteen years of real life, but mainstream Hollywood suffers from this plague almost universally.
Therefore, The Judge proves an exception, if not exceptional; an example of a different method. It is almost swamped by the reliance on the court to drive the plot, the comedy side-line and the excess of characters that slacken the focus upon the main pairing of the two Roberts. Duvall and Downey Jnr. are well-matched and prove sufficiently compelling to overlook the teenage squabbling of the latter and generational supremacy of the former. Both have to search within themselves to find the redeeming features of two fairly loathsome characters; in so doing, surprisingly, some genuine acting actually takes place. This is pretty earth-shattering news for anyone who merely wanted to see Downey Jnr. unnecessarily topless (yes, the torso makes an appearance as he dons the Metallica t-shirt) or even more suspect, wanted to see eighty-three-year-old Duvall topless (women of a certain age, weirdos). Nonetheless, the Duvall topless scene (he is sharing a bath tub with Downey Jnr. at the time, but you can dwell on the image and make your own story!) is central to the success of the partnership as we witness the role reversal of a patriarchal figure becoming dependent upon his son.
The bath tub scene is the most excruciating, nearly impossible watch of the entire film. As Hank rinses his father behind locked doors, it is the opportunity to unite the two strongest elements of the film. Hank’s precociously inquisitive daughter comes a knocking at the locked bathroom door and the Palmers are left scrambling for excuses. Lauren, played by Emma Tremblay, is the weather vane for the improving relations between father and son as the three generations all go out for ice cream immediately after this mysterious bathroom scene (no spoilers!). In terms of a young child, suffering the impacts of divorce and displacement, the film has parallels with Jon Favreau’s Chef. Especially as both reveal the centrality of creamed-ice to display the thawing of detachment; Ice Cream, the filmic symbol for family harmony, now go get a Ben & Jerry’s.
Bath tubs and ice creams. A review that started with trifle and ended on ice cream; must be hungry… You see, family life as farce is a slippery path for directors and critics. Still, the film avoids this trap. In a glimmer of beauty, there is a fantastic moment when Judge Palmer (Robert Duvall) expresses his gratitude to Hank and Downey Jnr’s eyes distend, the black pupils radiate with a flash of soulful elegance, the sort of look normally reserved for Gwyneth Paltrow.