Not long ago, if you’d heard that Robert Downey Jr. had urinated on another actor, it might have been true. The actor’s past struggles with sobriety are well-documented, as is his improbable career resurrection during the past decade. His successes as Iron Man have made him the poster boy for Marvel Comics’ continued takeover of Hollywood, with the 49-year-old becoming the screen’s biggest star. Still, there’s only so long the celebrated smartass will be able to squeeze into metal underpants.
Enter Team Downey, a production company he’s formed with his wife, Susan. It sounds more like a fabric softener, and their first project is light and fuzzy. The likable rogue has fashioned a film in which he chews some local scenery—exteriors shot in Dedham, interiors at an Attleboro funeral home, the Plymouth County Courthouse and a diner in Shelburne Falls—as an imposingly articulate Big City Lawyer who defends the lowest of the low.
Downey’s Hank Palmer begins the film standing at a urinal inside a Chicago courthouse when prosecutor Mike Kattan (David Krumholtz) storms in to confront Palmer as he relieves himself. Turning to face his opposition, Hank pees all over the man. Soiled but undeterred, Mike demands to know how it feels “only representing people who are guilty?”
“Let me finish that cliche for you,” Hank replies. “They’re the only ones who can afford me.”
If only the cliches had ended there.
Instead, the story cooked up by director David Dobkin and Nick Schenk (writer of Gran Torino), with a screenplay by Schenk and newcomer Bill Dubuque, trades in predictable formulas made slightly more palatable by Downey’s acidic wit.
Hank’s having a bad day. Not only is his wife (Sarah Lancaster) cheating, but she’s threatening to take custody of their 7-year-old daughter, Lauren (Emma Tremblay). All of this before he receives a voicemail informing him that his mother (Catherine Cummings) has died back home in Carlinville, Indiana.
No, I haven’t heard of Carlinville, either. Still, it might seem a bit familiar. Driving a rental car through his hometown (with help from a cheap-looking visual effect), Hank watches the local yokels going about their routines, muttering to himself that “nothing changes.” Sure, if you happen to overlook the fact that Indiana has begun to look an awful lot like Massachusetts…
Meeting up with older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong), he shakes his head, saying, “This family’s a fucking Picasso painting”—and we haven’t even been introduced to their father yet.
Glen, a promising baseball player during his youth, has settled into a puffy frame as the owner of a tire and auto-body shop. Dale is a developmentally disabled adult who’s been given one character trait, aside from being “slow”: He films every moment of his life with a ubiquitous Super-8 camera, a perfect device for lazy screenwriters who fill in backstory by having characters watch home movies of their younger selves as Bon Iver’s “Holocene” plays on the soundtrack. Here, this bonding “technique,” complete with the Iver song, is deployed no less than three times so viewers can completely grasp its subtleties.
It must be said: Dobkin, Schenk and Dubuque are masters of underlining everything (and I mean everything) to tie off the numerous threads that play into the dozen or so endings they deploy in the third act. And if this requires spending a half-hour developing an antagonistic relationship between Hank and his dad, Judge Joseph Palmer—known simply as “Judge” to everyone in the community after 40 years behind the bench—then so be it.
The judge is played by 83-year-old Robert Duvall, who’s well-matched with Downey—or he would be, if the two had better material to play. Standing vigil alone at his beloved wife’s grave after the funeral service, he vows that he’ll see her again tomorrow “and every day after that,” as Hank silently watches his dad from a distance. Alas, this ends up being a hollow promise when the judge is arrested the next day on suspicion of vehicular manslaughter—and possibly murder.
Whether he killed someone, intentionally or not (and he can’t remember what happened), the judge is guided by the principles of morality and justice. However, Hank, reluctantly acting in his father’s defense, is driven by a need to win, a desire Glen never fulfilled professionally once his major league dreams crashed in a car accident that was—yes—caused by Hank. It’s that kind of film. Actually, it’s worse than that kind of film, since this revelation, which has been telegraphed to death, is finally made explicitly clear during one of those convenient home movie viewings that occurs as a well-timed tornado rages outside.
Lest you think I’ve spoiled anything, know that there are plenty more equally obvious revelations to go around. And I haven’t even mentioned Carla (Leighton Meester), the flirty young waitress who plays tonsil hockey with Hank when the Palmer boys go out for drinks, or the subsequent discovery that she’s the daughter of his first love, Sam (Vera Farmiga), who’s also interested in making up for lost time.
Dobkin—director of comedies like Shanghai Knights, Wedding Crashers and Fred Claus—dives into dramatic territory here, but his heavy-handed examination of father/son relations belly-flops, ending up largely laughable. Between the diapers in his last picture, The Change-Up, and the incontinence that rears its bottom here, he mostly seems to excel when directing actors to bond over poop—or pee. Either way, it’s a shitty, predictable business.
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Emma Tremblay, Sarah Lancaster, Grace Zabriskie, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, David Krumholtz, Melissa Leo, Balthazar Getty, Ken Howard and Billy Bob Thornton. Written by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, based on a story by Nick Schenk and David Dobkin. Directed by David Dobkin. At Boston Common, Fenway, Assembly Row, Somerville and in the suburbs.