Reviewed for Shockya.com by Abe Friedtanzer
Director: Chris Smith
Writer: Chris Smith
Screened at: Online screening, LA, 11/16/22
Opens: December 2nd, 2022
Robert Downey Jr. is arguably one of the most famous movie stars today, and it would be hard to find someone who enjoys going to the movies who isn’t able to identify him. That superstar profile is interestingly at odds with the reputation of the man most responsible for getting him into his chosen career, his father, filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. Filmmaker Chris Smith recounts a tender and enlightening story of the elder Downey’s final days as he both participates in a film about his life and seeks to make his own offbeat version of the production.
Sr. is shot in black-and-white, a stylistic choice that serves to effectively heighten the nostalgia factor of the interactions it captures. Downey Jr. is very present and a catalyst for capturing his father on camera talking about his most influential works and how he looks at moviemaking in general. For those unfamiliar with Downey Sr.’s filmography, there are numerous clips shown from his many films, including his best-known, Putney Swope, that paint a clear picture of how divergent his vision was from those of so many other filmmakers.
Downey Sr.’s penchant for risk-taking and for giving absolutely no regard to those who sought to normalize him, like the studio bosses who hired him for a rare mainstream gig, is evident in the way in which he approaches his version of this documentary. His son is perhaps best able to summarize the way in which he tends to approach his subjects, declaring certain goals and intentions even and especially if they initially seem offbeat and without purpose. Downey Sr. knows what he wants, or at least that, in order to achieve it, he’s not about to do something he or anyone else has done before.
The film’s title serves to distinguish its two similarly-named protagonists, but, given that Downey Jr. has achieved a global, widespread fame, most who come to this film will likely be pulled in by him and not his lesser-known parent. But it’s the relationship between them that is most potent, seeing Downey Jr. recall his first on-screen performance delivering a very adult line in one of his father’s films and then speak to his father with a true reverence for his craft and his creativity. That Downey Sr. died as a result of Parkinson’s disease in 2021 only makes this film more heartfelt and sentimental.
The involvement of Downey Sr.’s family members, not just his son, in his films is also vital to understanding him as a filmmaker. There are clear lines drawn between Downey Jr.’s childhood being populated by an excessive amount of drugs to his later drug problems that predated his career resurgence and addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Downey Sr. is given the time and space to reflect on how he was as a parent, and it’s fascinating to see him express a degree of regret while still defending the choices he made and the artistic necessity of much of his lifestyle.
What remains most stirring about Sr. is how someone like Downey Jr., whose name will now be forever synonymous with a comic book character, grew up being taken by his father to fiercely independent films that were immeasurably inappropriate for a young child, to the point that his father once called a distributor to have him give a theater employee permission to let him in to see one of his films. Downey Jr. is just as present as his father for this film, and it’s remarkable to watch father and son reunite at a time when their career paths couldn’t be more different, yet Sr.’s is obviously responsible for so much of Jr.’s interest in the field. It’s a moving experience that manages a wonderful degree of intimacy with its subjects and the way in which they live so much of their lives either in front of or behind a camera.
Story – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+