As the superheroes of summer fade from theaters, the old-fashioned mystery is making a slight comeback this autumn. The genre may have peaked in the 1990s -- a golden era of Grishams and Turows -- but it's back in various guises, including last month's "A Walk Among the Tombstones," with Liam Neeson as a private eye, and the upcoming "Before I Go to Sleep," starring an amnesiac Nicole Kidman. Perhaps this is Hollywood's way of competing with television, a newly resurgent medium where the whodunit is still in fashion.
Riding this wave is "The Judge," a straight-ahead courtroom drama in which Robert Downey Jr. (a co-producer) swaps his Iron Man armor for the bespoke suit of a Chicago defense lawyer, Hank Palmer. Hank long ago left Carlinville, Indiana, where his estranged father, Joseph (Robert Duvall), is a legendarily hard-nosed judge. When Joseph is accused of murder, however, Hank decides to act as counsel. Theirs is not the ideal attorney-client relationship: "I wish I liked you more," Joseph tells his son.
"The Judge" has a lot going for it, particularly its top-shelf cast. Duvall may not be stretching as Joseph, but the 83-year-old actor can still pack a verbal gut-punch. Downey, likewise, remains stuck in snarky Tony Stark mode, but he excels at this kind of character -- brilliant, cocky, wounded. Backing them up are a terrific Vincent D'Onofrio as Glen, Hank's haunted brother, and Vera Farmiga as Samantha Powell, the girl that got away. Billy Bob Thornton plays Dwight Dickham, a prosecutor with Midwestern charm but Satan's beard.
Though solidly directed by David Dobkin (shifting gears from comedies like "Wedding Crashers") and enlivened by smart dialogue (by Nick Shenk and Bill Dubuque), "The Judge" never amounts to more than a legal-themed soap opera. Family drama abounds -- an old car accident, a mentally impaired brother (Jeremy Strong), a paternity question (Leighton Meester) -- but the trial itself holds few surprises and ends on an oddly unsatisfying note. While it's good to know that character-driven dramas still have a place at the movies, "The Judge" might have worked better as a television miniseries.
PLOT A small-town judge accused of murder turns to his son, a lawyer, for help.
RATING R (language, adult themes)
CAST Robert Downey, Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga
BOTTOM LINE Duvall and a fine support cast add polish to what basically amounts to a courtroom soap-opera.