In theaters Friday, Oct. 10
2 1/2 stars (out of 4 stars)
Essentially, this is Tony Stark in the courtroom.
But Robert Downey Jr.'s gift for loquacious gymnastics is so impressive that he makes his staid legal drama come to life.
The actor, still exuding a youthful energy at age 49, impresses as a hotshot Chicago lawyer — the name is actually Hank Palmer — able to win over a judge and jury with his hyper-articulate soliloquies. On the home front, he's burdened with a spate of personal problems, including an unfaithful wife and an estranged immediate family. We're about to find out why.
Hank returns to his one-horse hometown for his mom's funeral and then reluctantly stays there after his taciturn father (Robert Duvall) — also the most venerable judge in town — is rung up on murder charges. Not some kind of salacious heat-of-the-moment bloodletting, mind you: The old man got behind the wheel and may or may not have intentionally hit a scumbag convicted criminal. (Those crickets are chirping for a reason.) Despite their iciness (Hank doesn't even call him Dad), he agrees to be the Judge's lawyer.
As a legal yarn, the 141-minute film is cloaked in predictability. The shameless profiling during jury selection, the no-nonsense opposing counsel (Billy Bob Thornton), the grainy surveillance video footage as evidentiary support . . . they're all familiar hallmarks from the '90s heyday of John Grisham movie adaptations. (Well, except for Dax Shepard's doofus attorney, who could have been an extra from My Cousin Vinny.) Then, as an exclamation point to the melodrama, a character gives an outlandish confession on the witness stand. The revelation is meant to be a stop-in-your-tracks shocker, but it's too ridiculous and maudlin to carry any heft. (Sidebar: If Thornton is such an ace attorney, why isn't he calling for a mistrial?)
Not that the Judge's guilt is relevant anyway. In fact, let's be clear: The judge's guilt is not relevant. The case really serves as a catalyst for father and son to air out decades of long-simmering feelings. And not surprisingly, the powerhouse actors electrify during their tete-a-tetes. In one scene, while severe weather looms outside, the two argue with a stormy intensity, debating the rights and wrongs of their relationship. It's a testament to their considerable talent that they even wring passion out of their hackneyed dialogue (Pops didn't come to Hank's law school graduation!). The two also share a touching moment when Hank helps his frail dad into the shower: It ain't pretty, but it makes an impact.
Elsewhere, Downey brings his magnetism to otherwise-forgettable scenes with his two brothers (both written in very broad strokes), his precocious young daughter and his former flame (Vera Farmiga). Make that Requisite Former Flame. In movieland, it's an unspoken rule that any middle-aged guy at the crossroads who travels home must get it on with the girl he left behind. (Jason Bateman most recently pulled off this feat in last month's This Is Where I Leave You.) In this instance, Farmiga — a former Oscar nominee who deserves better — gets saddled with a downright silly baby daddy subplot as well.
And yet, Downey makes it interesting. He even compels during the film's four protracted endings. So here's the closing statement: If the gifted actor and producer wants to continue making pedigreed projects outside the comic book universe, nobody would object.
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