“The Judge,” Reviewed: A Trial of Errors.

Robert Downey, Jr., and Robert Duvall in “The Judge.” (Warner Bros.)

Robert Downey, Jr., and Robert Duvall in “The Judge.” (Warner Bros.)

Robert Downey, Jr., has been acting for more than 30 years, and no one was happier than I to see his career resurgence – after too much time wasted on drugs and prison – beginning with Iron Man in 2008. He’s now a 49-year-old Golden Boy of Hollywood, and his effortless charm seems capable of carrying him through whatever passes for retirement age in the movie industry. But that’s no excuse for phoning in a performance, or agreeing to star in a hackneyed, formulaic film. And I’m sorry to say that’s exactly what The Judge (rated R) is.

Downey plays Hank Palmer, an obscenely wealthy big-city defense attorney with a nice house and an unfaithful wife. Checking his voicemail during a trial, he learns that his mother has died, and he’s needed back in rural Indiana – for the funeral, and to endure long, painful scenes with his cantankerous father (Robert Duvall), the long-sitting judge in Hank’s hometown.

It seems Hank and his father haven’t spoken in years, thanks to some teenage misbehavior that led to a serious schism between father and son. “I wish I loved you more,” the elder Palmer tells Hank, and Duvall – an old pro even with this tired material – is convincing as someone who really wishes his unwanted houseguest would leave.

Unfortunately for all, providence arranges for Hank to stick around when the Judge is arrested for murder – a John Grisham-esque twist that puts Hank in the role of defense attorney, and sends the story into a convoluted tailspin of odd small-town secrets, long-festering feuds and trite family-drama clichés that are telegraphed a mile away.

While in town, the crusading attorney re-connects with his brothers (Vincent Donofrio and Jeremy Strong), one of whom has a learning disability; and with an old girlfriend (Vera Farmiga) whose grown daughter creates a bizarre conflict for Hank when he picks her up in a bar.

The Judge is the handiwork of David Dobkin, a comedy director who’s worked frequently with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, together or separately, in Clay Pigeons, Wedding CrashersFred Claus and Shanghai Knights. He’s never tackled drama before, and it shows – scenes that are written for high tension seem to waiting for audience laughter that will never come. Downey’s character in particular is an awkward mix of one-liners and angsty middle-son resentment; he’s neither forthright enough to be admirable nor naughty enough to be a proper antihero.

I really enjoyed one small but potent scene between these two veteran actors – a father-and-son eldercare moment that showcases Duvall’s vulnerability and Downey’s compassion. But that’s not enough to win The Judge its freedom from a guilty verdict of bad writing and limp direction. Case dismissed.