God save us from old coots and the actors who play them. Is that a terrible thing to say? Actors, like the rest of us, grow old, and there aren't a whole lot of good roles available to them. But do we really need to see Robert Duvall playing a withered grouch for the millionth time? There's only so much squintin' and grousin' an audience can bear, and in David Dobkin's The Judge -- a Midwestern drama in which bits and pieces of John Grisham courtroom showmanship bump up against Alexander Payne–style family angst -- Duvall reaches new, exhausting depths of cootery.
He plays crabby patriarch Joseph Palmer, a respected small-town Indiana judge and the father of Robert Downey Jr.'s Hank, a hotshot big-city lawyer known for keeping obviously guilty thugs out of jail. Hank never looked back after leaving the family homestead. But his mother's funeral draws him back, and he finds himself square in the beady-eyed gaze of old Joseph's seeming hatred.
It turns out, though, that Daddy Palmer might need the help of the son he reviles: After possibly going on a bender -- he's been sober for years -- the judge finds himself a suspect in what may be a vehicular homicide, and the case against him is strong (though the movie fails to make us understand why).
Nothing Downey does here is unexpected, and Duvall is often at his worst, screwing up his face in locust-cloud disgust whenever his most unloved son dares to challenge him, or crumpling into a total cutie-pie when his granddaughter, Hank's little girl (Emma Tremblay), asks him if he's going to take her out for an ice-cream cone.