Robert Downey Jr. is Chicago attorney Hank Palmer, who makes a tidy living successfully defending wealthy clients against all manner of charges from assault to fraud. Palmer was raised in a small town in Indiana, and after receiving news of his mother’s death he hurriedly returns home, where it’s clear that the relationship between Hank and his father Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) is very strained. Hank intends to leave on the first flight back to Chicago the morning after his mother’s funeral.
On the cusp of Hank’s departure, the police question his father about the hit and run death of a man the judge sent to prison for 20 years. At first refusing to countenance the idea of his son representing him if he is charged with the crime, Palmer Sr relents when faced with the seriousness of the situation and the incompetence of local legal counsel, and the circumstances inevitably push father and son towards rapprochement.
All the ‘you can’t go home again – or can you?’ hallmarks of this particular type of mawkish melodrama are present and accounted for: decaying and irascible parent; successful prodigal child who left the humble decency of small town life to seek fame and fortune; lovable but somewhat messed-up siblings who both adore and resent the one who has returned; and of course, the old flame for whom attraction is instantly rekindled (in this instance, Hank discovers that his former love (Vera Farmiga) is the mother of a young woman he made out with at a local bar (goodness gracious, might Hank be the girl’s father!?!), to ramp up the already creepy factor of the 50 year old sucking face with a girl half his age.
Increasingly, Downey Jr. sleepwalks through the films he appears in, dialing the Tony Stark-isms up or down depending on the genre; his elevation to global super-stardom seems to have completely erased any trace of the brilliant young actor who dazzled as Chaplin some 25 years ago. Duvall has reached an age and stature where he can be more readily excused for going through the motions, not least because there are some remarkable films in his resume unmatched by anything in Downey Jr.’s.
There is nothing overtly awful or offensive on display here, but a lot of us would prefer to see actors of this calibre take on work that has something remotely fresh or challenging about it, both for the actors and for the rest of us watching them.