It’s hard to begrudge Robert Downey Jr. his victory lap—or at least it was, for the first three or four years of it. After Iron Man performed a Depp-style mid-career resurrection as a major star, Downey has taken few chances with his newly beloved persona, playing Tony Stark four times and Sherlock Holmes twice. Those six movies comprise more than half of his 2008-2014 output; the other half consists mostly of him trying to win an Oscar.
He came closest with Tropic Thunder, for (among other reasons) giving a speech about what kind of performances can and cannot win an Oscar; The Soloist didn’t fare as well, and now here comes The Judge (the outliers are Due Date, a buddy comedy entry in the unofficial franchise that is Todd Phillips; and a clock-in cameo for his Iron Man rescuer in this summer’s Chef).
That said, it’s probably not fair of me to characterize The Judge, in which Downey plays a slick, rich attorney who comes home for his mother’s funeral and stays to defend his stern judge father (Robert Duvall) against unexpected murder charges, as a pure awards grab. In many ways, and like a lot of recent non-franchise studio movies, it comes off as a 90s throwback—a look back at a time when character-based dramas were produced for entertainment, not just clustered at the end of the year for obligatory Oscar glory. The courtroom setting, especially, lends it a bootleg-Grisham vibe.
But a lot of those Grisham movies, even the more emotional ones, have the backbeat of a legal thriller, while The Judge, for all of its familial connections to the law, makes the courtroom feel like a convenient place to herd all of the actors it keeps on retainer. Because this movie has a lot of characters: not just the judge father and his lawyer son, but two additional brothers in the family, the lawyer’s daughter back home, his wife, his hometown ex, his hometown ex’s daughter, opposing counsel, and even an underprepared assistant for his father’s defense. It’s a lot of narrative clutter, and one of the reasons the movie runs a vaguely ridiculous 140 minutes.
The fireworks are supposed to happen between Downey and Duvall; Duvall’s Joseph Palmer has been chilly and borderline cruel to Downey’s Hank for years, and Hank is torn between telling his father off and saving him, maybe winning his respect. A familiar dynamic with some dramatic potential—but what a dull crusty old man Duvall is here! His varying levels of gruffness with all of his sons aren’t funny, sound almost sitcom-ready at times, and don’t have much dramatic heft. He’s a great actor who shouldn’t be doing an old-coot routine.
Duvall gets more of a chance for nuance when the movie enfeebles him later on, but the movie never forms much of a duet; it wonders alongside its lead actor, interested in whatever he gets up to (multiple life conversations with his folksy, straight-talking ex played by Vera Farmiga; sulking; insulting people), at least momentarily; director David Dobkin often fades out of scenes inconclusively. All that matters, it seems, is following Hank, because The Judge is really about revealing the broken soul underneath the Downey persona—one character even calls Hank out for that “hyper-verbal vocabulary vomit thing you do” (in real life, she might have said “that Robert Downey Jr. routine”). This is standard practice in the portrayal of a slick wiseass, but it’s still plenty hoary, even for an old-fashioned drama. The Judge doesn’t feel like cynical pandering, exactly (though it’s weirdly unbelievable from most angles); it’s just a draggy, teary-eyed idea of what a grounded Robert Downey Jr. vehicle might look like. Like Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, it’s a midlife crisis movie guided by an actor whose actual midlife crisis, if present, would probably be a lot more specific and interesting than his attempts to fake a relatable one with feeling. By the end, I got the feeling that Downey was looking at this as his actorly redemption. As it turns out, there’s greater depth of feeling in Iron Man 3.
Downey will go on to other high-profile work and his career will survive even if The Judge flops and/or he does Sherlock Holmes 3. He’s still got a few decades before his big showcase roles involve cantankerous grumbling, though you have to wonder if he’s staring across the set at Robert Duvall with a little bit of fear mixed in with the awe. There’s nothing wrong with growing old, of course; Duvall just deserves better than this kind of part. His Get Low costar, Bill Murray, goes after the same shtick this weekend in St. Vincent, which seems designed in part to make children of the 60s and 70s feel old: Bill Murray has officially graduated to movies where he plays old coots. Murray adopts a Brooklynish accent to play Vincent, a cranky old guy who lets things play as they lay, which in this case means letting mail and old dishes and whatever else pile up in his little city house. A single mom (Melissa McCarthy) and her sweet-natured kid (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door, and a reluctant Vincent nonetheless cajoles her into paying him to babysit.
Anyone who’s only seen a few movies and doesn’t know where this is going might consult the title. The actors do manage to make the material less painful than it might have been—as does, indirectly, the movie’s jumpy subplot addiction. The more effective version of this story might have jettisoned, for example, a go-nowhere thread about Vincent owing a large sum of money to a shady acquaintance (Terrence Howard, whose career these days seems to consist mainly of two-scene walk-ons like this one), but it does cut through some of the treacle. St. Vincent is only really worth watching if you’re craving some long looks at Murray’s weathered, distinctive face, and I wouldn’t blame you if you are. It may be a project pitched to Murray (and/or the Weinsteins) via appeals to a sense of overdue-Oscar vanity, but at least there isn’t much actual vanity in the film itself.