Leave out Robert Downey, Jr., and The Judge looks like a painfully old-fashioned exercise in the Tradition of Quality. Big-city defense attorney Hank Palmer (that’s Downey) comes home to Indiana just in time to see his father (Robert Duvall), a respected judge, arrested for vehicular homicide. Father and son do not care for each other, but the dominoes are poised to let Hank stick around and mount a spirited defense. In the course of the trial, family dynamics are tested, Hank brushes up against an old girlfriend (Vera Farmiga), and zero coolness points are awarded to anyone involved in the movie. Well, maybe Billy Bob Thornton earns a few as a sleek prosecutor (think George C. Scott in Anatomy of a Murder), but otherwise this is a very square film, suitable for limited Oscar buzz and a safe choice for seeing with your parents.
But we can’t leave out Downey, because he’s present in pretty much every scene. And on his best behavior: The actor doesn’t run roughshod over the script or his fellow actors, but he doesn’t phone it in, either. Without losing the conventional arc of the character, this is very much a Downey performance, full of quicksilver responses and sneaky humor. (There are a few moments when he grins in disbelief at the dialogue—but that’s what Hank Palmer would do.) And so his scenes with his brothers (Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong) have a believable testiness, and his reunion with Farmiga’s hometown gal has the right amount of cocktail sauce to keep it from getting rote.
David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) directs the film in a generic style, yet with just enough spikiness to avoid blanding out entirely. A scene between Hank and his ailing father is bracingly frank about what happens to bodies when they become ill, and a running joke about Hank’s brief encounter with a young woman (Leighton Meester) in a bar takes on a truly eyebrow-raising tint for reasons that can’t be revealed here. The Judge retains its court-appointed status as a middlebrow awards contender, but these wrinkles help keep it bearable. It also points to a career Downey could maintain after Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes have run their course, when this eternally youthful actor ages into a different kind of role—though one suspects he’ll always be capable of absolutely anything. Opens Fri., Oct. 10 at Majestic Bay and other theaters. Rated R. 141 minutes.