“The Judge,” an inoffensive and generally likeable drama that odd-couples Robert Downey Jr. with Robert Duvall, runs like a two-plus-hour chardonnay. Setting aside a few quasi-coarse moments (even a family-friendly film needs to establish street cred on its own terms), “The Judge” plays mostly by the numbers that American audiences have decided they like in their black-sheep redemption tales. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; whatever you might begrudge a crowd-pleaser, they tend to be so named for a reason. But it also feels like an opportunity passed.
Downey is a hot-shot lawyer in Chicago, defending scumbags by trade — making him, by extension, no small bag of scum himself. He gets word during a trial that his mother has died. He hugs his young daughter goodbye, gets into one last screaming match with his soon-to-be estranged wife, and heads off to small-town Indiana, a trip he has long avoided.
His grown brothers are still there — Vincent D’Onofrio as a shoulda-been baseball star in unremarkable middle age, Jeremy Strong as a simple-hearted shutterbug — and his high-school girlfriend, Vera Farmiga, is still working the counter at the diner. This is no small amount of baggage for a guy who hasn’t been home in 25 years! Which obviously is the point, so back off already.
The font of Downey’s troubles, and the reason home ain’t really his bag, is his old man, Duvall, equal parts doddering and thundering. He’s the titular judge, having been on the bench for four decades, and in his bedrock reverence for the law, a foil to his win-at-all-costs son. They clash on a number of levels, and just as neither can wait to see the other in the rearview, something happens that has the old man needing legal counsel in a serious way.
Director David Dobkin’s oeuvre to this point (“Fred Claus,” “The Change-Up,” “Wedding Crashers”) wouldn’t point to a gritty legal drama as his next step and, indeed, “The Judge” aims to have it both ways, bringing in the occasional chuckle or warm-fuzzy to leaven what could’ve been a thoroughly dark story. Downey’s at his best in these tight spaces, though. The hyperkinetic delivery that made his “Iron Man” performances iconic translates to a film in which he has to hit a range of notes.
He moves quickly enough to maneuver through romance, breakup, indignation and magnanimity with ease. Meanwhile Duvall holds down his role as if he’d been discovered wandering the wilds of the Midwest and someone decided to build a movie around him, like setting a house down beside a century-old oak.
Their chemistry paints a kind of parent-child love-hate that movies don’t always do this well. Together they almost nudge “The Judge” beyond its destiny as a middlebrow exercise worth watching with the in-laws when it appears on cable during the holidays. (Pay attention to the namby-pamby score, in fact, to get a sense of how seriously the movie wants us to take it.) Instead the symbolism gets piled on too thickly, the character arc sails too cleanly. It’s slick moviemaking that risks gliding right through you without leaving much of an impression.