Stanley Kubrick believed that casting was 80 percent responsible for the failure or success of a film. Put the right actor—not necessarily the best actor—in the right role, and everything has a way of falling into place. The Judge is a father-son courtroom drama featuring a Jaded Lawyer and an Ornery Coot, and it would be difficult to imagine better choices than Robert Downey Jr., who produced the film with his wife, and Robert Duvall.
Downey, in his first real drama since 2009’s The Soloist, “plays the closest thing to a real human being he’s tackled in ages,” writes EW’s critic Chris Nashawaty. “As hotshot Chicago attorney Hank Palmer, Downey is his usual onscreen type—the whip-smart wiseass who’s cynical and selfish… until he’s not.”
Hank is called home for his mother’s funeral, and forced to revisit the scarred relationship he had with his irascible father, an esteemed judge who then finds himself on the wrong end of a murder trial. With his father facing a guilty verdict, Hank insists on leading his legal defense, even as the two men re-fight the battles that have kept them apart for 20 years.
His relationship with the Judge isn’t the only one that Hank has to rebuild. Vera Farmiga plays an old hometown girlfriend that he left behind, and Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong play his two brothers.
Read more from EW’s review, as well as a roundup of other notable critics, below.
Chris Nashawaty (Entertainment Weekly)
“What makes the film more than just a dusty Grisham retread is that the case (as compelling as it is) is merely the backdrop for a more emotionally engaging story about fathers and sons played, like a duet, by two virtuoso actors who give the film not only all they have but probably more than it requires.”
Ty Burr (Boston Globe)
“The Judge, a slick, ripsnorting character drama whose artistic ambitions are consistently neutralized by its commercial imperatives, puts Downey in a box from which even he can’t escape.”
Mick LaSalle (San Francisco Chronicle)
“Beethoven once went five years without composing. Until now, Downey has gone five years without making anything close to a serious movie. The bigger waste of time was Beethoven’s, but talent wasted is talent wasted. This is the type of film Downey should be making.”
David Edelstein (New York)
“Robert Downey Jr. likes to play slippery hipsters who realize the full extent of their aloneness and resolve to slip no more. If he isn’t on some basic level boring the hell out of himself, he’s not the actor I think he is.”
Justin Chang (Variety)
“Duvall’s performance, his most memorable in some time, carries unmistakable echoes of the many broken-down, hard-drinking, hermit-like men he’s played in movies past, yet never before has the 83-year-old actor rendered so painfully honest a portrait of a man whose body and mind are slowly failing him.”
A.O. Scott (New York Times) ▼
“[Judge Palmer is] crusty, but with an occasional twinkle in his eye and a well-hidden soft spot. He is, more precisely, a collection of personality traits in search of a coherent character, which Mr. Duvall, by dint of sheer professionalism, comes very close to supplying.”
Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times)
“[As] directed by David Dobkin from a script by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, this vivid and volatile core is often undercut by a weakness for middle-of-the-road sentiment and a desire to be all things to all people.”
Richard Roeper (Chicago Sun-Times)
“The actual case isn’t all that complex or compelling, and the eventual explanation for what happened is almost an afterthought. By the time all the ghosts and feuds have been put to rest, it’s surprising how little we care about these characters.”
Steven Rea (Philadelphia Inquirer)
“It’s a tale with too many tangents, with a Thomas Newman score to cue the meaningful moments, and a saccharine Bon Iver song (“Holocene”) that must have been used in a dozen movies by now—and twice in this one.”
Wesley Morris (Grantland)
“Whatever is happening with Hollywood movies at the moment, you can feel it in The Judge. It’s not that it doesn’t know what kind of movie to be. It’s that it wants to be many movies, and fails at being even one of them.”
Todd McCarthy (Hollywood Reporter)
“After making his name in comedy with the likes of Shanghai Knights, Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus and The Change-Up, director David Dobkin conscientiously battens down every hatch to the point where spontaneity has been trumped by an over-calculated fastidiousness.”
Overall Metacritic rating (1-100): 47
Rotten Tomatoes: 50 percent
Length: 142 minutes
Starring Robert Downey Jr, Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton, Vera Farmiga
Directed by David Dobkin
Distributor: Warner Bros.