God save us from old coots and the actors who play them. Is that a terrible thing to say? Actors, like the rest of us, grow old, and there aren't a whole lot of good roles available to them. But do we really need to see Robert Duvall playing a withered grouch for the millionth time? There's only so much squintin' and grousin' an audience can bear, and in David Dobkin's The Judge — a Midwestern drama in which bits and pieces of John Grisham courtroom showmanship bump up against Alexander Payne-style family angst — Duvall reaches new, exhausting depths of cootery.
He plays crabby patriarch Joseph Palmer, a respected small-town Indiana judge who has raised three sons, two of whom he seems to not actually hate. Palmer treats tire salesman Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) and sweet, simple Dale (Jeremy Strong) with something like benign indifference. The kid who drew the short straw is Robert Downey Jr.'s Hank, a hotshot big-city lawyer known for keeping obviously guilty thugs out of jail — though he's also got a soft side, being the sort of guy who wears a white-collared blue shirt and a hippie string bracelet with his regulation lawyer suit. Hank never looked back after leaving the family homestead, one of those gracious old houses with a porch invitin' you to set a spell. But his mother's funeral draws him back, and as if that weren't painful enough, he also finds himself square in the beady-eyed gaze of old Joseph's seeming hatred.
It turns out, though, that Daddy Palmer might need the help of the son he reviles: After possibly going on a bender — he's been sober for years — the judge finds himself a suspect in what may be a vehicular homicide, and the case against him is strong, though the movie fails to make us understand why. The plot mechanics of The Judge make little sense, at least given what we know about small, middle-American towns, either from actually living in them or from watching lots of movies about them. To spell out the details would give too much away, but when I confessed my confusion about certain twists and behaviors to a colleague, he turned to me with the patient solemnity of a grade-school civics teacher and said, with a sigh, "What you're failing to grasp is that in the heartland, people are honest and pure; they believe in justice. It's only in the big city that corruption and personal motives sully the purity of the law."
I stand chastened. But I still wouldn't want to sit through The Judge again. Dobkin made his name with comedies like the cheerfully disreputable Wedding Crashers and, even better, the stupendously birdbrained Shanghai Knights, in which Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson erased cultural barriers by speaking their own language of brilliant non sequiturs. The Judge has its funny moments but is far more serious at heart, and much more of a slog, too. Hefty chunks of it take place in the courtroom, where Billy Bob Thornton shows up as a skinny bulldog of a lawyer. There's a tepid love-interest angle involving Vera Farmiga as Hank's high-school girlfriend — her eyes rimmed very precisely with small-town tough-gal eyeliner circa 1989 — but The Judge is really mostly about healing the wounds of father-son relationship trauma. Downey is just the kind of guy you might think you would want to see in this role: Hank has a wisecrack for every occasion, but because Downey's playing him, we also see the years of "Love me, Daddy!" pain pooling in the dark soulfulness of his eyes.
Still, nothing Downey does here is unexpected, or even all that moving. Clearly, the idea was to match two great actors from different generations, and both come out swinging, all too wildly. Duvall is terrific in the movie's quieter scenes, particularly one in which his character doesn't know he's being watched: As his wife's coffin sits gleaming in the cemetery, waiting to be put into the ground forever, he stands alone beside it, talking to the friend and helpmeet who is no longer there. Before walking away, he reaches out to pat the polished wood, and the words that spill out of his mouth, only half-audibly, are "Bye. Bye-bye."
That's what Duvall, at his best, can do. But most of The Judge shows Duvall at his worst, screwing up his face in locust-cloud disgust whenever his most unloved son dares to challenge him, or crumpling into a total cutie-pie when his granddaughter, Hank's little girl (Emma Tremblay), asks him if he's going to take her out for an ice-cream cone. Note that The Judge does feature a few well-drawn scenes that capture the truth about caring for an elderly parent — it's hardly a pretty business, definitely not for the faint of heart. But for every minute of stark honesty, dozens more feel forced, as when Joseph humiliates Hank, whose wife has cuckolded him, by cackling over the way she "played hide-the-pickle with someone else." That's a knee-slapper, all right — you almost expect Duvall to chortle like Walter Brennan. It's just one example of how The Judge could use better judgment.