- - Thursday, October 9, 2014

You can tell what kind of movie “The Judge” is just by listening to the score.

From scene to scene and even moment to moment, it veers wildly between emotions: It’s all weepy treacle one second, sunny optimism the next, bouncy and comic for one encounter, then dark and mournful a beat or two later.

It never quite lands on consistent tone, it’s often overbearing, and while the moments themselves sometimes work fine, the shifts are sudden, jarring and forced.

“The Judge” is neither a terrific movie nor a terrible one, though at various times it flirts with being both. Like its score, it is often too obvious and prone to sudden shifts of mood and tone, few of which are earned. But there are a handful of well-written scenes, and the performances from its all-star cast make the most of even the mediocre material.

The story offers a hodgepodge of familiar dramatic tropes: There’s a Grisham-style small-town court drama, a close-up portrayal of a family in crisis, and, threading through it all, the story of a big-shot city lawyer returned home to, inevitably, reconcile with his father.

That lawyer is Hank Palmer, a famously successful Chicago defense attorney played with arch-swagger by Robert Downey Jr. There’s not much in his performance that viewers haven’t seen before — with his cast-off witticisms and effortless dominance of every situation, he’s basically Tony Stark as a lawyer rather than a superhero — but it’s as amusing and engaging as ever.

When his mother dies, Hank heads home to attend the funeral, with his young daughter Lauren (Emma Tremblay) eventually arriving too. Hank runs into Samantha (Vera Farmiga), an old flame, but is also forced into interacting with his brothers, the slow man-child Dale (Jeremy Strong), and the gruff older sibling Glen (Vincent D’Onofio), as well as his stern and sometimes mean-spirited father, Joseph (Robert Duvall), a family patriarch to whom Hank barely speaks.

Hank’s already-strained relationship with his stubborn, domineering father is put to the test when Joseph is accused of killing a man, and Hank ends up defending him in court against Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), a steely, cool prosecutor who has a history with Hank.

There are too many characters, too many subplots vying for attention, and not all of them work. With his penchant for nave questions that highlight the subtext of any given situation, Dale often comes across as more of a device than a person. Hank’s daughter Lauren is even worse in this regard; at no point in the movie does she resemble a believable little girl.

But Mr. D’Onofrio, a burly giant of a man who comes across as a teddy bear with a grizzly inside, is often subtle and affecting, and Ms. Farmiga turns an underwritten part into one of the movie’s best subplots.

It’s Mr. Duvall, though, who owns the movie. As Hank, Mr. Downey gets the better lines, but Mr. Duvall, now 83, bears the brunt of the movie’s emotional weight, and he carries it with marvelous dignity. Like most of the actors involved, he’s better than this movie, and he makes the movie better than it should be. Even more than the other actors, his turn is cause for a lenient verdict on this otherwise mediocre courtroom drama.

The movie’s not great, but he is.

 

Two-and-a-half stars

TITLE: “The Judge”

CREDITS: Directed by David Dobkin; screenplay by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque

RATING: R for language

RUNNING TIME: 141 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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