With five separate screenings spread out over King Street West, The Judge opened TIFF with the resounding slam of a gavel. By sheer virtue of its star power, The Judge — starring Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, and Billy Bob Thornton — was off to a good start before court was even in session.

Downey Jr. plays Hank Palmer, a big shot Chicago defense attorney with a facetious tongue and an emboldened sense of immorality. Despite the mansion in the suburbs with a Ferrari in the driveway, Hank’s home life is deteriorating: his wife is divorcing him, his daughter misses him, and he is estranged from his father, a judge of 42 years in Carlinville, Indiana. Hank returns home upon hearing that his mother has passed away, and winds up staying in town to defend his father when he is accused of a hit-and-run on the night of her funeral.

The film, however, is marred — in fact, bloated — by cliché and cheap contrivance. Characters such as Hank’s disabled younger brother who films everything with a Super 8 camera, is both a character we have seen countless times in contemporary cinema as well as a convenient device used to fill in gaps of logic. Furthermore, the inclusion of Hank’s old high school sweetheart, Samantha, clogs the script with an uninteresting romantic subplot that treads heavily into convention and veers the otherwise thrilling principal narrative into sappy and uncharacteristically comedic territory.

One glimpse at director David Dobkin’s directing history sheds light upon why his filmography, which includes The Wedding Crashers and The Change-Up, paints the picture of a director far more comfortable with comedy than drama. Other directors, such as James L. Brooks, the Coen Brothers, and David Gordon Green, are able to shuttle between comedy and drama on a film-to-film basis. Within its 141-minute duration, however, Dobkin jumps from melodrama to saccharine tenderness to vomit sight gags and back to melodrama again, changing tone at a breakneck pace.

The film is held together by stellar performances by Duvall and Vincent D’Onofrio. Downey Jr. isn’t doing anything new here, playing the same lovably unscrupulous jerk he’s been offering up since 2008, but D’Onofrio offers up genuine heart as Hank’s rough-but-sympathetic older brother. Duvall ultimately steals the show with his take as the cantankerous yet vulnerable Judge Palmer coming off as gut-wrenchingly poignant and utterly captivating. Captured beautifully in 35mm, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski utilizes careful shot composition to frame Duvall from a lower angle, showing him as a commanding and influential presence over both Carlinville justice, and his sons’ lives.

But despite gorgeous visuals and quality performances, The Judge never falls victim to its own convention and inconsistent tone. Equal parts courtroom thriller and family drama, it fails to strike a successful balance between the two.

Verdict: Anchored by a stellar performance by Duvall, The Judge is never the less something worth waiting to see in theatres.