Review: Robert Downey Jr. is guilty of being shameless in ‘The Judge’

Someone really, really needs a hug from Robert Downey Sr.

Written by Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque, and a blender full of better legal thrillers and family dramas, “The Judge” has been directed by David Dobkin almost entirely in ornate second-unit establishing shots and dramatic entrances. It is an insistent film, and “subtle” isn't even a consideration. This is a movie that will tell you the same piece of information nine times to make a point because it has no faith at all that you will understand it. It also features more endings than “Return Of The King,” and it feels like a movie the younger, rowdier Robert Downey Jr. would have made fun of mercilessly.

Honestly, as soon as the first scene with Downey played out, I started to worry. There's a trial. He's a big high-powered defense attorney. We meet him standing at a urinal. The opposing counsel, played by David Krumholtz, comes in to confront him.

Guess what happens then. Go ahead. Guess. Did you guess that he pees on Krumholtz? You did? Well, congratulations, you also have seen a movie before. During that same scene, Krumholtz starts asking Downey how he sleeps at night and Downey stops him. “Let me finish that cliche for you,” he says, as if that somehow justifies the next 130 minutes of painful cliche. Simply acknowledging it does not excuse it, but the film plunges in without ever looking back, and it goes from pedestrian to painful to unintentionally funny before finally petering out somewhere around interminable.

Hank Palmer (Downey) gets the call that his mother has died, so he goes home for her funeral. This gives us a good half-hour or so of shoe leather to establish that Hank and his father, Judge Palmer (Robert Duvall), don't get along. We also get to meet his brothers, Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong), and we learn slowly (oh, sooooooooooo slowly) that Glen was hurt in an accident that Hank caused and that Dale has always been “slow,” the comfortable movie version of genuinely disabled. If I had to pick one character in the film that I find most wince-worthy, it's Dale. Like everything about the film, his character is shameless. He always carries a movie camera around so we get not one, not two, but three big scenes in which characters watch old home movies and remember how things used to be before delivering preposterous dialogue out how things are. He's used as a device, not written as a person, and watching him, I struggled mightily not to hear Downey's words of advice to Ben Stiller in “Tropic Thunder,” and I may have failed. And laughed. Repeatedly.

There are small signs of life in the film. Dax Shepard shows up and does charming work as a local attorney who Judge Palmer hires when a man is killed by a car in the middle of the night and Judge Palmer ends up as the prime suspect. After all, the guy who was killed was in Judge Palmer's court once and what happened between them is the one black mark on the judge's record. Hank wants to leave his father hanging out to dry, but he can't. He finds himself drawn back in to help defend his father, even as the two of them begin to work out…

… I can't. Even typing the synopsis is irritating. This cast should know better. More than that, though, Robert Downey Jr. does know better. He's a genuinely smart guy. Every conversation I've ever had with him, every appearance he does… he really is that guy whose brain is constantly humming, who seems so sharp, so ready to play. How did this script slip by? How did this become the first big project for Team Downey, the company formed by him and his wife Susan? I suspect it all boils down to a scene that takes place during an impending tornado (seriously) in which another of those home movie scenes (seriously) just happens to show the turning point in the lives of every person in the room (seriously) and leads to a giant shouting match between Hank and his father in which it feels like, regardless of what is actually being said, Downey is yelling at his own father, asking him how he ever let him get so lost along the way. In that one moment, there is something very real happening in Downey's performance, and it's not in the text, and it's not something that the rest of the film earns, and it doesn't seem fully motivated by what the film is doing. But something real is happening, and it is the only moment where he feels fully present, fully connected.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe he took the film so he could make out with Vera Farmiga and Leighton Meester. Maybe he just thought he could make it work because he'd look good in his expensive suits playing lawyer. It's a showboat role, for sure, but a hollow one, and when that happens, I have a hard time seeing past the surface tics and mannerisms of a performance. He's not the only good actor who feels stranded here. They all do. If they had cut every second of screen time for Farmiga and Meester, it would have no impact on the film at all, no matter how appealing they are, and the same is true of several other characters. It's the sort of script that you can't start to question because if you do, the entire thing unravels. And for all the talk in the film about how great a lawyer Hank is, he doesn't really seem to do anything exceptional in court, with his entire case basically coming down to a sympathy move.

There's a scene early on, where Hank is driving from the airport to his home for the funeral, and he's in a rental car, and Dobkin does an establishing shot that starts in close on Hank, then pulls back and becomes a big helicopter shot of Hank, the fields around him, the highway… all obviously an effect shot because of how it begins… and aside from the fact that it still doesn't look fully rendered during the switch from the greenscreen shot of Downey and the second-unit shot of the car, what bugged me most was knowing that a shot like that costs more than some other entire films that are playing at this festival. Dobkin demonstrates no grace or economy as a storyteller. He just ladles on every cheap trick he can, hoping he might accidentally jerk a tear or trigger a laugh. “The Judge” is risible Hollywood dreck, a star vehicle with nothing genuine driving it, and at 142 minutes, it is nearly impossible to defend. No great movie is too long. This one most certainly is.

“The Judge” opened the Toronto Film Festival tonight, and will be in theaters everywhere October 10, 2014.