Review: ‘The Judge’ gets Duvall back in the picture

Ann Hornaday (c) 2014, The Washington Post. “The Judge,” a courtroom procedural tucked into the folds of a family melodrama, feels like one of its own characters, a onetime champ who could have made it to the big leagues had his potential not been squandered by someone else’s poor choices.

The movie certainly has casting on its side. On paper, a showdown between Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall looks like one of those too-good-to-miss cinematic cards, a bout between two heavyweights whose mutual game of rope-a-dope approaches heights of poetry. And it’s true that Downey — here playing a predatory Chicago defense attorney named Hank Palmer — and Duvall, as his estranged father, Joseph, enjoy moments of pure music together, with Downey’s cocksure, slightly pitchy mannerisms ricocheting off Duvall’s steady-eyed focus like so many BBs hitting a mighty, impervious oak tree.

If only the story surrounding them were in as fine a fighting trim: It’s as if writer-director David Dobkin (“Wedding Crashers”) created “The Judge” by ticking the boxes on a set of screenwriting instructions. Thriller element, check. Adorably wise child, check. Rekindled love interest, check. Explosive family dynamics soothed by loving, learning and laughter, check, check, check.

Dobkin earns extra points for choosing some gorgeous Massachusetts locations to play the all-American town of Carlinville, Indiana, where Hank reluctantly returns for his mother’s funeral, and where he even more reluctantly stays when his father, a respected judge, faces some legal trouble of his own. Like an unwieldy cross between a John Grisham legal potboiler and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Judge” is a baggy, tonally all-over-the-place pastiche of genres that, sharply edited and streamlined, would have resulted in an absorbing, even sophisticated, grown-up drama.

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Not surprisingly, considering Dobkin’s résumé, “The Judge” possesses its share of astringent humor, the most welcome of which comes by way of Vera Farmiga, who plays Hank’s bleach-blond high school girlfriend with a large tattoo and tartly funny throwaway lines. (Dax Shepard is also appealing as a slightly dim local lawyer who has a habit of throwing up before every trial.)

Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong drift in and out as Hank’s brothers, Glen — with whom he shares a complicated past — and Dale, who is developmentally challenged, his naivete a source of humor no less patronizing for being painstakingly gentle. Luckily, one of Dale’s tics is carrying a home-movie camera around everywhere, giving “The Judge” plenty of opportunities to stop the action and have the Palmer boys watch super-saturated images of times when they were all closer, nicer and happier together.

Such digressions take away from the molten core of “The Judge,” which is the spiky, unresolved relationship between Hank and his demanding, distant father. Downey’s Hank swoops into Carlinville much like Tony Stark in “Iron Man” mode, dripping sarcasm, contempt and un-thinly veiled superiority. The all-too-familiar shtick grows tiresome after a while — and it’s particularly hard to take when know-it-all Hank refers to someone’s mental “actuality” when he clearly means “acuity.” But whenever he’s on screen with Duvall, “The Judge” seems to rediscover its emotional bearing.

Duvall has been so good for so long that it’s easy to take him for granted, but watching his wily, touching, flawlessly calibrated performance here serves to remind viewers just what screen acting looks like, or should look like. Even in the film’s most sentimental, maudlin and conveniently extreme moments, Duvall dominates “The Judge,” much like his character dominates his own courtroom: through sheer force of presence, integrity and implacable authority.

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One and a half stars. Rated R. At area theaters. Contains profanity, including some sexual references. 141 minutes.

Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.