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The Judge review

Downey by law

All rise for Robert Downey Jr., who takes a breather from franchise load-bearing to stretch his legs dramatically. The Judge may deliver his meatiest role since The Soloist but it comes saddled with the same issues that afflicted Joe Wright’s 2009 film, namely being manipulative middlebrow awards bait without the substance to land any prizes.

Downey Jr. stars as Hank Palmer, a hotshot Chicago lawyer who heads home for his mother’s funeral and ends up staying after his estranged father (Robert Duvall) is involved in a deadly hit-and-run. Opening scenes portray Hank as a brash alpha happily defending guilty corporate schmucks and divorcing his supermodel wife. In time, he naturally softens into someone altogether less dickish, the film suggesting that small-town values are the remedy for any soul-sick city slicker.

Frank’s hometown is so ludicrously bucolic, you half expect to see the Funny Or Die logo pop up on screen. Adding some grit is Robert Duvall as the judge of the title. It’s a typically no-nonsense turn from Duvall, and he and Downey Jr. bring appealing punch to their battling scenes. Also on hand are Hank’s mentally impaired younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong); disappointed older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio); and Samantha (Vera Farmiga), an old flame with a hot daughter (Leighton Meester) whom Hank wastes no time getting to know better.

Hank has so much catching up to do that there seems barely room for the whole legal thriller bit. True, it does bring the welcome addition of Billy Bob Thornton as a slick prosecutor. But it also spawns courtroom scenes that degenerate into family therapy sessions, as Hank steps up to defend his father. Draped in a schmaltzy haze, The Judge needed smarter steering to harvest real results, so how it ended up in the hands of the man who directed Fred Claus (David Dobkin) is anyone’s guess.

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