Sometimes people should stick to what they do well. Sure, it's only natural to want to prove you're a pony with more than one trick, but the cruel truth is that some people were put on earth for one purpose only. Director David Dobkin was born to give us 2005's immortal Wedding Crashers and comedies like it. The Marx Brothers never did Shakespeare.
Dobkin was definitely not put on this planet to helm meandering, dysfunctional family/courtroom dramas. Exhibit A: The Judge. This movie manages to run nearly two and a half hours, feature some of the most gifted actors alive, and somehow fail to offer a trope, motif or character type we haven't seen a hundred times before — in pictures a hundred times less predictable.
You want predictable? How about Robert Downey Jr. as Hank Palmer, a wise-ass Chicago lawyer with an attitude? His specialty is twisting the law to keep rich creeps he knows are guilty from seeing the inside of a cell. It's the sort of glib master-of-the-universe role the actor could play in his sleep.
Or how about Robert Duvall reduced to recycling codger mannerisms? Actors don't get more masterful than Duvall. But, when you get to be 83, Hollywood has pretty much one role left for you: the crotchety SOB with a warm, gooey center waiting to be discovered in Act 3. Duvall's small-town Judge Palmer — Hank's dad — is a walking, talking super-cut of the characters the actors played in Get Low, The Road, Jayne Mansfield's Car and Crazy Heart.
Hank is forced to return to his Indiana hometown for his mother's funeral. Father and son have been estranged for years (long story). Blood is found on the grill of the old man's Cadillac, and he's arrested for murder and can't remember whether he did it (even longer story). So, guess who winds up defending him and, just maybe, reconciling with him? Eugene O'Neill this isn't.
The domestic drama is as clueless as the courtroom proceedings are convoluted. Hank's older brother (Vincent D'Onofrio) dreamed of a career pitching in the majors until his hand was crippled in a car crash. (Hank was driving — really long story.) His younger brother (Jeremy Strong) is among the most offensive screen creations I've come across in years.
Someone should've informed Dobkin, along with fellow writers Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, that cognitive disability is no longer acceptable comic fodder in the 21st century. Dale Palmer clearly suffers from a form of autism that the writers don't take the trouble to define. Instead, they make a running joke out of his carrying the family's old Super 8 camera everywhere and shoving it in everyone's face.
Dobkin has claimed in interviews that he was inspired by Rain Man, but The Judge has about as much in common with that film as it does with Inherit the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird or any of the other timeless courtroom dramas of American cinema.
Other squandered players are Billy Bob Thornton as the unnecessarily sinister prosecuting attorney, Vera Farmiga as Hank's high school squeeze, Dax Shepard as a hick lawyer and Ken Howard as the judge presiding over the case. You know you're bored when you catch yourself musing on the evolution of his toupees.
Here's my closing argument: There are two things a movie should never waste — the talent of its cast and the time of its audience. The Judge is guilty on both counts. Dobkin should be sentenced to the community service he'd be performing if he simply ditched the "serious artist" shtick and went back into the funny business.