Hot-shot, whip-smart, and snarky big city Chicago lawyer, Hank Palmer (Downey, Jr) is a dick. He’s in the middle of a divorce to his pretty wife, he only takes on high-profile guilty cases (“The innocent can’t afford me”), and rarely sees his cutsie little daughter, Lauren (Emma Tremblay). Out of the blue he gets a call that his mother has passed and that means only one thing to him: having to go back home to Indiana and see his estranged father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall), Carlinville’s leading figurehead.
Clearly we see that these two hate each other. Once back home in Indiana, Hank also reacquaints himself with his two brothers. Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), the eldest who runs the local garage in town and once had hopes of being a major baseball player, and younger autistic Dale (Jeremy Strong), who fanciest himself a movie cameraman. After the funeral, Hank almost rekindles a long-lost flame with his high school sweetheart, Samantha Powell (Vera Farmiga), whose gorgeous daughter, Carla (Leighton Meester) runs her mom’s bar.
But a serious problem arises, as the Judge is accused of running over and killing a guy he once convicted of murder! The Judge’s car is damaged, the victim’s blood is on it, but the Judge can’t remember a thing about it. Arrested and irritated at his son’s interest in his business, the Judge instead hires a local country bumpkin lawyer (Dax Shepard) to represent him. Bad move, Judge! The trial goes to court and calls out a shark of a prosecuting attorney, Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton–damn good), to go against the local yocal. Yeah, it doesn’t go well.
Hank almost loses it with his exasperating father and prepares to leave, until he discovers his terrible secret. The Judge is dying of cancer and has been on chemo for months, making his memory blank about that night of the accident. Up against the wall and facing possible prison time, the Judge finally accepts his son as co-counsel and the legal fight is on in court to save dear ol’ dad. But the real question comes up… was it an accident or not?
In-between time, we have long drawn out periods of father/son tirades, concocted scenes to draw the two together, the requisite big-shot city lawyer waking up to his past life in home-spun Indiana and his old school love and, of course, the inevitable father/son bonding and reconciling that’s going to happen in the third act. Yes, all on time and all very convenient.
Not that the screenplay by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque is bad, it’s just that the plot is so formula and by the book in many ways. I will give them points on writing some terrific dialogue; the courtroom jargon is excellent. The redeeming qualities is the director David Dobkin’s relaxed direction here, the natural home-town beauty of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, where it was shot, and the cast. Downey, Jr. and Duvall squaring off at each other is a sight to behold. It’s Tony Stark vs The Great Santini; you can feel the electricity in the scenes as they go at each other.
Also great is the chemistry of Downey, Jr and Farmiga, especially in a late-night restaurant scene. So natural, so perfect, it’s like eaves-dropping on a couple without getting caught. And you got your Billy Bob Thornton, looking lean and mean (my God, someone feed this man!!) and who just oozes ruthlessness. I’d like to see a movie with him as Dickham and HIS story!
Music Box (1989)
According to prosecuting attorney Jack Burke (Fredric Forrest), Michael Laszlo is not who he claims to be. Rather, he’s “Mishka”, the former commander of the deadly Arrow Cross Party and during the siege of Budapest, Mishka’s men tortured and murdered hundreds of Hungarian Jews, Gypsies, and more. Naturally, Anne says these allegations are absurd; the loving father who raised her couldn’t have possibly committed such crimes. Red herrings pop-up left and right on both sides of the fence: is her father an atrocious, evil war criminal or just a loving, caring father who’s being railroaded into this unbelievable situation? Every search yields documents or people that either swing the facts one way or the other, and she’s never quite sure what or who to believe anymore. It all seems to hinge on a dead Hungarian peasant named Tibor Zoldan who may or may not have been in cahoots with Mishka, and a mysterious lost music box.
Although Anne is successful in exonerating her father in court, there’s that nagging feeling that something isn’t right. She pursues the Zoldan angle and finds a relative who gives her Tibor’s old wallet. She looks inside. What’s this? A pawn ticket? Sure enough, that pawn ticket leads her to the missing music box that contains the damning photographic evidence that proves who Mishka really is! Hint: Anne’s not going to be happy about this!
Very much like the plot of 1998’s Apt Pupil, it’s a formula screenplay at best, made better by the wonderful cast and on location shooting by Gravas. Lange even got two nominees for her role here (Golden Globe and Academy Award). Although not a box office smash, it is a nice little drama that shows the dynamic of father and daughter and how far their love is tested in the face of horrifying allegations.