We all know dramadies are manipulative. Whether the characters wind up deserving our empathy is another matter. Surprisingly, two directors not known for making great films have now given us two of the year’s better dramedies. Last month, Shawn Levy — known for the worst family films imaginable — treated us to some Cameron Crowe-lite with This Is Where I Leave You, and now, director David Dobkin does one better. The Judge is every bit as manipulative as you’d assume, and yes, the trailer gives away most of the movie, but with Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall leading the cast, prepare to feel bad for loving this movie.
Henry “Hank” Palmer (Downey) enjoys being the lawyer innocents can’t afford. But life calls him home to Carlinville, Indiana, following the death of his mother. Leaving behind his cheating wife Lisa (Sarah Lancaster) and daughter Lauren (Emma Tremblay), he arrives to less than open arms by his father, Judge Joseph “Joe” Palmer (Duvall). His brothers Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong) are far more welcoming. While Hank can’t seem to get out of Carlinville fast enough, he still finds time to reignite an old flame with Samantha (Vera Farmiga) before finding Joe’s Cadillac scratched up with a broken headlight and the Sheriff finding a dead body. Now, Hank has to stick around to help defend the one client he doesn’t want to and deal with all the skeletons in the Palmer closet.
Director Dobkin may be best known for comedies — the good: Clay Pigeons, Shanghai Knights, and Wedding Crashers; the bad: The Change-Up; and the ugly: Fred Claus — but it never feels forced, easing the manipulative melodrama. Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque’s screenplay almost feels like a testosterone version of a Lifetime movie, but the cast saves the day. The whole Palmer clan feels like an authentic family. Coming from a family of three boys myself, I can tell you, their portrayal is all too real. Screaming and fighting one minute to acting like nothing’s happened the next while everything sits on the backburner for another round — Dobkin and crew nail it.
Downey and Duvall manage to play off each other in several cases of machismo gone wild, the best part of the movie are the scenes with Downey and Farmiga, unfortunately, she is severely underused. I hope we get to see them together again because they have fantastic chemistry. Downey and Tremblay also make an adorable father-daughter. The Judge is too long for sure, but the performances make it easier to take — even if you always know what’s coming. This is definitely Dobkin’s best film so far. It’s exactly the kind of soul food movie audiences crave during the fall season, full of laughs and tissue moments.
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