The problems start early, with an overlong opening act that fails to do much more than provide Downey with lots of moments to crack wise. He plays Hank Palmer, a hotshot defense attorney who knows everyone he defends is guilty, yet maintains a comfortably clear conscious. It’s as if director David Dobkin believes so fully in the power of Downey’s magnetism, he doesn’t get the actual story off the ground until well after Hank return home to attend his mother’s funeral. He’s estranged from his family, including hard-ass judge Joseph (Duvall), who’s proud of his career legacy but not so much when it comes to his son Hank’s achievements. Flanked by brothers Glen (D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong) for the first time in years, Hank falls quickly back into place as the family black sheep. He’s the one who fled the tiny town for the big city, “abandoning” the family, leaving much lingering bitterness in his wake.
Eventually, we come to find that Judge Joseph is being investigated as a murder suspect. The victim was someone the judge passed sentence on in the distant past; a poorly explained and almost peripheral backstory fills us in on what Joseph’s motive might be. One way or the other, Hank is determined to put personal problems on hold and defend his father. While the murder case should probably be the engine that drives the story, Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque’s screenplay seems more interested in the often over-sentimentalized inner workings of the Palmer family. They brothers bicker and continue to cower when their imposing father lays down demands. Glen’s wife and child are pushed so far into the shadows it’s easy to forget who they are when they occasionally pipe up during a discussion. Hank, struggling with a nasty divorce, rekindles an old relationship with bar owner Sam (Farmiga) who has a college-aged daughter (Leighton Meester) who may or may not be a product of their former romance.
In other words, it’s an entire soap opera season’s worth of subplots and minor characters squeezed into a 141 minute movie. Most of the side characters aren’t worth the time, since eventually the murder trial does take center stage. It’s hard to understand why Thornton, who plays prosecutor Dwight Dickham, even took the role (perhaps he was attracted by the heavyweight cast). He’s among the most vital actors working today, yet Dobkin and company strand him in a go-nowhere role. Additional emotional heft is piled on when it’s revealed a main character is dealing with a serious illness, but it only serves to tip the balance further into “everything but the kitchen sink” excessiveness. Helping not one iota is use of the mentally challenged Dale as occasional comic relief. And you can bet his “quirky” obsession with shooting 8mm home movies will inadvertently provide important details to assist Hank in his defense. Unfortunately, by the time the trial kicks into high gear, it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for Joseph’s fate.
Warner Bros.’s presentation of The Judge on Blu-ray cannot be called into question. It’s a gorgeous looking film, with moody, evocative cinematography by Janusz Kamiński. The lush greens and blue skies captured on-location in Indiana are quite breathtaking in this rock solid transfer. As for the audio, the DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix is a rather sedate affair. Thomas Newman’s score takes center stage quite frequently, really the only truly noteworthy sonic element beyond the always-clear dialogue. It’s a very strong presentation, but obviously not the kind of film that will tax your sound system too much. The strength of the 5.1 mix lies in the sound design’s subtleties.
Among the special features is a surprisingly strong making-of featurette called “Inside The Judge.” This 22-minute piece mostly eschews the typical EPK fluff in favor of an interesting roundtable discussion between Downey and other cast members, including Duvall. Director David Dobkin provides feature-length audio commentary, as well as optional commentary to accompany 18 minutes of deleted scenes. Additionally there is a featurette called “Getting Deep with Dax Shepard.” Shepard plays local lawyer C.P. Kennedy, Judge Joseph’s initial choice as his defense attorney before giving in and letting Hank handle the case. The Blu-ray Combo Pack also includes a standard DVD and UltraViolet Digital Copy.
The Judge is bolstered by a truly impressive cast, but ultimately sunk by a lack of focus. We’re asked to believe that smarmy Hank is spiritually transformed by the experience of defending his father, especially hot on the heels of losing his mother. But despite the best efforts of the cast, nothing really comes together in what feels like a paint-by-numbers effort.