(M) 3.5 out of 5
Director: David Dobkin.
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D'Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Billy Bob Thornton, Dax Shepard.
THERE'S nothing quite like a funeral to bring the family back together.
And if it's a funeral in a movie, that family reunion is bound to result in the airing of plenty of dirty laundry and a few skeletons falling out of the closets they were hidden in.
It made up most of Death At A Funeral, we saw it recently in August: Osage County and it will be a central plot point in the upcoming This Is Where I Leave You, to name just two.
This overused trope is the kick-off point for The Judge, where hotshot lawyer Hank Palmer (Downey Jr) returns home for the first time in 20 years to help bury his mother.
His homecoming reignites his troubled relationship with his father, local long-serving judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall), whose authoritative standing in his family is exemplified by the fact they all call him "Judge".
The relationship takes an interesting turn when Judge is arrested the day after the funeral for allegedly running down and killing a known felon, forcing Hank to step up and defend him in court.
If a lot of those ideas sound familiar it's because they are. The Judge has to fight hard to overcome the fact its a big old ball of clichés all rolled together.
The funeral bringing the family together for the airing of grievances, the high-flying former local returning home to confront his past, the father-and-son team needing to put their differences aside and work together for the good of the family, and even the courtroom becoming a place to mend emotional family hurts - they're all here, piled on top of each other as if they're the double-episode opener for a new TV show called Small Town Lawyer or something.
Even Downey Jr's character feels like a cliché, one that's becoming his stock-in-trade - the arrogant, sarcastic hotshot who secretly has a heart of gold could be describing his roles in the Iron Man movies, Chef, Due Date, and Sherlock Holmes - AKA almost every movie he's been in for the last five years.
Having said that, Downey Jr does that type of character incredibly well, and here he dials his performance up to 11, giving one of the best performances of his career.
It's his turn, particularly when he goes head-to-head with Duvall's grumpy patriarch, that elevates this movie. Thanks to the efforts of the two Roberts and their solid supporting cast, The Judge is better than it should be and transcends its numerous clichés and resulting melodrama.
The aforementioned performances are the only degree of subtlety about The Judge. For example, the opposing lawyer (Thornton) has a history with Hank Palmer and a pointless affection involving a metal cup that clangs and opens violently. Then there's the storm that blows in to town at the peak of the father-son turmoil, only to disappear with no ramifications other than serving as some overly simple symbolism. And then there's the relationship between Hank and his ex (Farmiga), which picks up like the last 20 years never happened.
Dobkin, best known for directing comedies such as The Change-Up and Wedding Crashers, can't do much in the face of these script contrivances except let the cast do its thing. He handles the rare comedic moments nicely, which does help to defuse the excessive emotive moments.
Having said all that, the clichés and melodrama are reasonably inoffensive and overall the film is relatively enjoyable. Its biggest problem is that it's way too long at two hours and 20 minutes - whereas the 149 minutes of Gone Girl barely drags, the 140 minutes of The Judge definitely feels like more of a slog.
If not for Downey Jr and co, The Judge could be a seen-it-before waste of time, but their performances help illuminate the colour and heart in the story and overcome its shortcomings.