Living in the shadow of his father, Judge Joseph Palmer, (Robert Duvall) estranged son and hot-shot lawyer, Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) returns to his hometown to help bury his mother. While here, Joseph and Hank struggle to keep their dislike for each other to keep from boiling over. After the funeral, Joseph is accused of striking and killing a person with his car who he had, earlier in life, shown a great disdain for. Hank decides to try and help fight for Joseph's innocence as prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) pushes for Joseph to be charged for murder.
A passion project for Robert Downey Jr, as he is the star and his production team helped get the film made, The Judge tries to balance a film that wants to be equal parts dysfunctional family comedy and court room drama. Director David Dobkin struggles to maintain a solid balance in the film; resulting in a movie that never really knows what it wants to be. The only thing The Judge know what it wants is for every nearly every scene to be blown out with light as if they hired a second-rate Robert Richardson (sorry, Janusz Kaminski).
Hank is what you would expect Robert Downey Jr. to be playing, as of late. He is brash and fast-talking (is there any other lawyer in film?) while Joseph is stern and cold to Hank. Hank's brothers Glen and Dale (Vincent D'Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) are much closer to Joseph, having stayed in town while Hank left and went to law school. The strained relationship between Joseph and Hank fuels most of the film's verbal dynamics, yet comes off as more forced than a natural relationship.
While in town, Hank is going through a divorce and tries to rekindle a past romance with Sam, (Vera Farmiga) who owns the local diner. The constitutes an added subplot, along with Sam's daughter (another subplot) that feels shoehorned into the story to try and make Hank sympathetic, yet antagonistic at the same time. Sam comes and goes from the film as the screenplay needs and never pulls you in as it should.
The meat of the film comes from Hank and Joseph trying to reconcile their past differences in an attempt for Hank to adequately defend Joseph of the charges levied against him. Along with the previously-mentioned cliches in the film, Joseph also might be suffering from an illness that can cause him to forget pieces of information in his life (including whether or not he killed a person).
The Judge has the right ingredients for a solid film, but the paint-by-numbers screenplay sinks it. Every idea in The Judge rings false and never allows one to invest with the characters or story. Instead the film forcefully tugs on the heartstrings of the audience when they want you to cry or tickle your funny bone when they want you to laugh. The Judge tries to manipulate the audience into feeling what you should feel instead of just letting the film naturally flow and letting the audience share the film's emotions naturally.