Downey Jr returns to drama with The Judge

Cast member Robert Downey Jr. attends a news conference promoting the film The Judge at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on Sept 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Cast member Robert Downey Jr. attends a news conference promoting the film The Judge at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on Sept 5, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

TORONTO, Canada (AFP) - Iron Man star Robert Downey Jr. has shed his box-office-busting superhero suit to take on a quiet family drama in the Toronto film festival opener The Judge, but got little love from critics Friday.

In the film, which represents a return to his roots in dramatic roles, Downey Jr plays a slick Chicago defense lawyer who heads back to his Indiana hometown.

There, he must defend his father - a prominent judge played by Robert Duvall - in a murder trial, despite their bitterly dysfunctional relationship.

The movie "isn't one of the big tempo (films) which Robert and I have been living in for a while," his wife Susan, one of the film's producers, told reporters at the festival, the largest in North America.

"Our hope is that this will get us going on that conversation of 'can we put out movies about real people'," she said, adding that it was inspired by older studio films with "just people talking." "Sometimes it's nice to have (films) that don't involve just defending the world," she said.

- Quieter role -

After a flurry of dramatic roles early in his career, including his Oscar-nominated turn as Charlie Chaplin, Downey Jr has recently become the king of the action-packed blockbusters.

His starring roles in the "Iron Man" and "Avengers" franchises based on Marvel comic book characters, as well as his turn as famed detective Sherlock Holmes, were all huge box office hits.

The Los Angeles Times said his latest film combines a family drama with 1990s adaptations of John Grisham legal thrillers The Client and The Firm. But "to make headway with the Academy (for an Oscar nod)... it will need a strong commercial run," the Times wrote.

Industry journal Variety described The Judge as an "engrossing, unwieldy hurricane of a movie that plays like a small-town courtroom thriller by way of a testosterone-fueled remake of August: Osage County." Cast opposite Downey are Oscar winner Duvall and Oscar-nominated Vera Farmiga (Up In The Air), as well as Vincent D'Onofrio and Dax Shepard.

Acting legend Duvall said "working with these people... even at my age (allowed me) to grow a little bit."

- 'How we used to do it' -

Downey said he enjoyed the return to a smaller, family-driven story.

"We (cast and crew) all come from places that are different than we're necessarily associated with... and so in some ways it's a return to where we've always been," Downey said.

Recalling director David Dobkin's rigorous rehearsal process for the film, he said it was "unlike anything I've been through since I was going to theater arts or doing regional theater." "I think I remember a movie or two back when rehearsal was actually booked as part of the preproduction time and it seems to have just evaporated," he explained. "This is how we used to do it." Film festivals are often a place for actors to showcase more meaty roles as studios shy away from adult-oriented films.

Matthew McConaughey reinvented himself as a serious actor playing an AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club, which premiered in Toronto last year. He later took home a best actor Oscar.

Many stars appear to be walking the same path this year, including Downey Jr and Captain America Chris Evans, who is acting and making his directorial debut in Before We Go.

Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston are also taking the drama route with former Spider-Man Tobey Maguire, who plays chess champion Bobby Fischer in Pawn Sacrifice. Reese Witherspoon and Al Pacino are also back with rigorous dramas: Wild and The Good Lie for the Legally Blonde actress, and Manglehorn for Pacino.

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