Sr. 2022 Movie Review
Robert Downey Jr.’s documentary “Sr.,” a tribute to his dying father, filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., is the stuff dreams are made on, a freestyle, loopy narrative, much like that of his father’s films, that doesn’t so much as unfold as unravel. However, there is a thread that holds this narrative together: the chronology of Downey’s short career, beginning with “Chafed Elbows” in 1966 to “Putney Swope” in 1969, the film for which he is best remembered (accepted to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress–an argument can be made for “Greaser’s Palace” from 1972, a worthy film, fully realized, and borderline coherent). There are highlights from “Pound” in 1970 (Downey Jr.’s acting debut) to “Hugo Pool” in 1997 (with Jr again, who has now become a rising, mainstream actor). Movie clips are fun to see and serve a purpose, but are presented without insights into Downey’s unique vision and style that would have been helpful to those unfamiliar with his oeuvre. Sadly, Sr.’s career in the 90s took a wrong turn on the Hollywood freeway, where his quirky genius and undisciplined creativity were tampered down by studio moguls (“Hugo Pool” is perhaps the best of the later films).
If there is anything to be learned from Sr.’s output of irreverent, undefinable, sometimes incomprehensible movies is that they are a pervasive call to action, so beautifully lampooned in “Putney Swope,” which is to raise an indignant finger at the established order. In another time, Sr would have been the Paul Thomas Anderson of his age, making undefinable, irreverent, sometimes incomprehensible movies, but with wider acceptance and better production values.
Downey’s loving portrait, his efforts to memorialize his father’s career, from his youth to his deathbed (not a figure of speech), and document the final three years of his life, is at times touching and embarrassing to watch. I understand his motives in making this film: he has, after all, earned the wider, public appeal and financial rewards that Sr could not, whose fame far surpassed that of Sr., only to be labeled “Robert Downey’s father.” But I question this fashionable compulsion nowadays to broadcast the intimate, private moments of one’s life, those moments clearly not intended for mass consumption. Sr always lacked discretion in his material, so this compulsion somehow seems appropriate, but disturbing, too.
There is also something incongruous at work here, in that the phenomenally successful actor, with homes in Hollywood and the Hamptons, mostly films his iconoclastic father inside his modest New York apartment, an irony which I doubt was lost on Sr. (although maybe lost on Jr.). For the record, Jr was at one time the most promising actor of his generation, one of the best in fact (just watch his brilliant performance in “Chaplin”), but who in the end squandered his gifts for the profitable, movie franchise business. He is not, however, alone on that well-worn path, traversed by others of his age, Cage, Depp, Reeves, and Cruise. To his credit, he overcame addictions and revived a floundering career, yet it remains to be seen whether he will fulfill his former promise in more challenging, meaningful work. This documentary may be a step in that direction, as it returns him to his father’s drive and purpose in the movie-making business. It may as well return audiences to the first Downey, especially Jr.’s Sherlock fans, turning them onto his modest, experimental, joyful, confounding movies. I for one want to watch “Putney Swope” and “Greaser’s Palace” again.