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Robert Downey Jr.’s Underrated Legal Drama Is Climbing the Netflix Charts

May 5, 2024 - Movies

Summary

  • Robert Downey Jr. shined in
    The Judge
    , a film that finally found success on Netflix despite mixed early reviews.
  • A family drama with a courtroom twist,
    The Judge
    features a strong ensemble cast, including Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall.
  • At 2 hours and 20 minutes,
    The Judge
    is a perfect streaming choice for a Sunday afternoon movie session.



From 2008 to 2019, Oscar-winner Robert Downey Jr. starred in 18 movies. Of those 18, 10 of them featured him playing Tony Stark. Naturally, those were his most successful of that time period or any other (not including the smashing success of Oppenheimer). Still, there was also an assortment of smaller movies that did well in their own right. Jon Favreau’s Chef was a likable indie that quadrupled its budget. Due Date grossed over $100 million domestically despite poor reviews and a crass tone. The Sherlock Holmes movies performed well with critics and audiences alike, though less so with Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.


And, now that 2014’s The Judge (which debuted between Iron Man 3 and Avengers: Age of Ultron) is one of the most-streamed movies on Netflix, it’s finally become a hit. But, given its mixed reviews from critics and $85 million worldwide haul on a budget of $50 million for a while there, it was not. To be fair, $50 million is a hefty price tag for a family drama. Even still, time can be kind to a crowd-pleaser, and given the Netflix audience’s reaction to it, those behind The Judge can now call it a successful, pleasant Sunday afternoon movie.


Robert Downey Jr.’s Role in The Judge

The Judge

The Judge

Release Date
October 8, 2014

Runtime
141

The Judge tells the tale of Hank Palmer and his father, Judge Joseph Palmer (a role for which Jack Nicholson was once considered, though Downey Jr. nixed the idea). The former is a smug, jaded Chicago-based lawyer far removed from his small-town Indiana upbringing. He returns home upon receiving word that his mother has passed away and, once there, notices some odd damage on the fender of his father’s (who he just calls ‘Judge’) car.


It turns out Judge may very well be behind a hit-and-run. Yet, given his newfound memory lapses, there’s reason to believe him when he says he doesn’t remember such an incident. However, given Hank’s knowledge that his father is a recovering alcoholic, his skepticism is apparent.

While unraveling this mystery, Hank finally gets to build a relationship with his father, who sent him to juvenile detention as a teen instead of helping him as he could have. Not only that, he can also rebuild his relationships with his brothers, though neither dynamic was as damaged as the one between Hank and his dad. Along the way to proving either innocence or guilt, Hank may very well run into an old flame, one whose fire never quite died out in his heart.


The Judge Features Several Hollywood A-Listers

Downey Jr. and Duvall play, of course, the lead roles, Hank and Judge Joseph Palmer, respectively. The vast majority of the narrative is centered on not only Joseph’s alleged crime but also his tense and tenuous relationship with his son. And, really, the latter is the true meat of the film. Though, as impressive as Downey Jr.’s performance is, he certainly has been given the opportunity to show more range via his quadruple role in HBO’s The Sympathizer.


But there’s also the rest of the Palmer clan. Vincent D’Onofrio brings a warmth to Glen, Hank’s older brother, while Succession‘s Jeremy Strong is given a difficult task as Dale, Hank’s younger brother. Dale has an intellectual disability, and while the script certainly could have done more to flesh out both characters, at least each gets to flex their acting muscles via a tender moment or two with Downey Jr.

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As for the remainder of the primary cast, Vera Farmiga gets a few solid scenes as Samantha Powell, Hank’s old flame. She remained in their small hometown even after he left. Yet, like Hank, the physical distance that grew between them didn’t permanently squash their emotional intimacy and mutual understanding. In other words, she’s the one who shows him that, even if you move away, part of your heart will always belong to where (and with whom) you grew up.


For the film’s requisite courtroom scenes, two very different performers play two very different characters. On one hand, there’s Billy Bob Thornton as prosecutor Dwight Dickham. Cold and by the books, he’s the perfect villain for a movie like this. That said, like Dax Shepard’s incompetent defense attorney, C.P. Kennedy, he’s essentially relegated to a one-note character.

Still, they’re given more to do than Leighton Meester as Carla Powell, the daughter of Farmiga’s Samantha. She, more or less, exists to fuel a subplot where Hank hits on her only to find out who she really is. Naturally, given her age and his and Samantha’s past, his mind races as to who her father is. It’s the only subplot that feels a bit tacked on but is not much of a distraction.


What Makes The Judge a Perfect Streaming Film?

At 2 hours and 20 minutes, The Judge was a lot of familial tension for an expensive movie theater trip. But given its tone, which isn’t overbearing, it can prove to be a solid popcorn movie (provided the corn is popped at home). After all, it was helmed by David Dobkin, the director of Wedding Crashers.

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Could the film have done with a rewrite, especially when fleshing out the supporting cast (effectively everyone save for Downey Jr. and Duvall)? Yes, but a movie with a handful of solid performances and a relatable nature can survive an average script. That’s the case for The Judge, which is more rewatchable than most dramas centered around a dysfunctional relationship. In other words, it was practically born to earn its audience via streaming. The Judge is streaming now on Netflix.


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