Courtroom dramas ought to be smart. When you think about mind-candy films like Witness for the Prosecution, 12 Angry Men, or even The Lincoln Lawyer, it’s the histrionics of attorneys, juries, and order-in-the-court gavels, but the entertainment is built over a foundation, a clever kin to the whodunit: reversals played out in the ultra-formal setting of The Palace of Law.
This movie is dumb. Which is surprising since the leading men are all so A-List. The esteemed Robert Duvall is a stern patriarch and title character, and the always-watchable Robert Downey Jr., whose entire shtick is the savvy wisecrack, plays the bratty son as a morality-free attorney. (Around here, we just call that “a lawyer.”) Papa gets in trouble, and his estranged son must come to the rescue. Of course, every fatuous family-is-everything device is employed, mortality is invoked, and a wide-eyed prodigy daughter fills in the schmaltzy gaps.
What we keep waiting for is some sort of ingenious surprise or some golden revelation. (There’s even a bizarre flirtation with incest that gets promptly dropped by the inexpert script.) Instead we get a plot that seems like it’s managed by a bad sitcom team who knows how to score heart tugs every 10 minutes but can’t even keep the characters fixed. One moment, Duvall’s character is a thundering hypocrite; three minutes later, he’s a kitty cat. What this movie needs is some literary equivalent of the rule of law; what we get is emotional gunk worthy only of unequivocal objections