It is unwise to read too much into celebrity tweets. They’re often generated by a personal assistant, by an intern or by contractual obligation. Nevertheless, Robert Downey Jr.’s tweets about his latest film “The Judge” just throb with authentic need: “Pls help prove films about ppl can do business,” from Oct. 1 seems to cry out for something Tony Stark will never get. RDJ wants to be seen for his prodigious talent as a dramatic actor, with a script that leans on human pathos rather than superhuman pathology. In “The Judge,” he almost gets his wish.
Robert Downey Jr. is Hank Palmer, a high-powered lawyer with a classic car and a hot wife — a man who talks fast and hard and always wins. His father (Robert Duvall) is an arrogant and magisterial small-town judge with a crusty hatefulness that evokes the all-father everyone loves to disappoint. Hank comes home to mourn his recently deceased mother, only to find himself responsible for defending his dad in a murder trial. Along the way, Hank’s less-impressive brothers (Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong, in a logic-defying trio of genetic implausibility) play the lumping and obvious counterpoints to a golden boy who nonetheless remains the family black sheep. Samantha (Vera Farmigia) pulls valiantly for female personhood, stymied by an utter failure of the Bechdel test and the barely-conscious misogyny running through the screenplay.
For all its predictability, “The Judge” works on an accurate map of the moviegoer’s heartstrings. The visuals of the film are painted in stark and contrasting sunlight, arrayed over cornfields, judicial furniture and faces of disapproval. Hank’s struggle with his father is nothing short of exquisite anguish; Downey Jr. is a master of emotional interplay, despite his rapid-fire style of dialogue delivery. Duvall brings the weight of his career and experience to the stony stoicism of the titular judge and makes every viewer think of their own father at least once.
The climactic moments of the film are, of course, forced into open court, where a whip-thin and very controlled Billy Bob Thornton appears just in time to cross-examine this father and son in their 20-year tug-of-war. These exchanges are tense and wounded, with the pained humiliation that can only be evidenced by disgraced kings who have lost the favor of heaven.
The best scenes in “The Judge” are private, taking place in the nerve center of the rural house: the kitchen. Duvall, overwhelmed by the loss of control that accompanies sickness and old age, walks with hubristic determination into an active tornado. His son follows. The fury of the storm is caught between the two of them: The gale-force wind crashing through the wife and mother’s cupboards whips their cruelty out into the open for them both to look at in the eyes.
It is this central relationship that elevates the film from its overwrought premise into Downey Jr.’s wistful and pleading wish for a successful film about people. All spokes lead outward: A brain-damaged athlete, a cheating spouse, a child of dubious paternity and the trial itself fade away behind the roar of the storm between judge and lawyer — between father and son. The eye of the storm is where the genius of “The Judge” lies, but audiences will have to try hard to avoid being swept up in the melodramatic rush of the rest of it.
Alas, the eye of the storm is not what will be remembered. The blind destruction and roaring intensity of the rest of it is just too distracting. Director David Dobkin seems to plead with the same intensity as RDJ for serious consideration; his most notable works thus far include “Wedding Crashers” and “Fred Claus.” If “The Judge” fails to earn the kind of response these men earnestly ask for, it will not be because audiences are accustomed to their lighter fare. It will be because “The Judge” is a tale told by two geniuses, full of sound and fury, but still signifying nothing.
“The Judge” opens Friday at AMC Bay Street 16.