Hollywood, an industry replete with dynasties, might never produce a more delightful, oddball familial pairing than Robert Downey Sr. and Jr. The two superficially represent something of an ironic ideological divide: the father, a legendary underground filmmaker whose countercultural works like “Putney Swope” and “Greaser’s Palace” functioned as middle fingers to the Hollywood establishment; and the son, the former face of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and one of the highest-paid actors of all time. A perma-cult figure vs. one of the most recognized visages in the world. An infamously irreverent auteur vs. the symbol of cultural hegemony. Despite their differences in artistic practices, however, the obvious remains true—they are still father and son, and have remained refreshingly close over the years.
Director Chris Smith (“American Movie”) acutely understands that the image of Sr. and Jr. palling around together has an amusing spark to it. His film, “Sr.,” a portrait of Robert Downey Sr. in the last years of his life as he races to finish a biographical documentary about his own life, feels the fleetest whenever it features father and son together in the same frame. These scenes transparently evince a dynamic that clearly goes back decades: While Sr. constantly tries to direct his own scenes in front of the camera, encouraging Smith to push in here or block subjects there, Jr. hams it up with the extended family. When the two of them shoot B-roll and interview footage together, Sr. always tries to tinker with the footage while Jr. cracks jokes about his dad’s behavior. Similarly, the stories of Jr.’s unconventional childhood are plainly amusing, whether it’s Jr. reminiscing about how he would fall asleep to the sound of dailies because his dad placed his crib in the editing bay, or Sr. talking about calling a distributor to compel a ticket taker to allow his son to see Marco Ferreri’s X-rated “Le Grande Bouffe.”
The backbone of “Sr.” follows dual cuts of the documentary: a more traditional biographical version directed and edited by Smith, and a more experimental version directed and co-edited by Robert Downey Sr. himself. The finished film comprises the traditional version and scenes of Sr. location scouting and co-editing his cut. Since Sr.’s Parkinson’s disease rapidly worsens over the course of the film’s production, we eventually watch him co-edit his version from his bed as his mobility ceases, but we never actually see his version of the footage. Although “Sr.” pays appropriate tribute to the man and his loving relationships, there’s a palpable absence of Sr.’s own personal touch on the material. It’s difficult not to imagine a version of “Sr.” that actually incorporates both cuts rather dutifully recording the process.
The disjointed structure of “Sr.” might charitably be seen as an attempted homage to its subject, whose best work was absurdist and disjunctive, but it’s more likely that it’s because its focus was being negotiated and improvised over the course of the problem. “Sr.” ultimately sports a grab-bag quality to it. Part of the film traces the director over the course of his career, from his early shorts through his troubled late-period Hollywood films. Another part chronicles Sr.’s relationship with his son, particularly their closeness over the years and his regrets about passing on his hedonistic, substance-abusing traits. Lastly, it follows the last days of Sr.’s life as Jr. brings his own son to document their final moments together.
Sometimes these threads neatly dovetail, like contrasting Sr.’s own lost years in the mid-’70s when he was making “Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight” with Jr.’s similar struggles a couple decades later. Other times, Smith simply embraces an instinctive, digressive rhythm that mashes together talking head interviews with people like Norman Lear, Alan Arkin, and Sr.’s sister and third wife alongside Zoom interviews between Jr. and Sr. and B-roll footage of Sr. walking around New York and clips from his films, all under a vague chronological framework. “Sr.” can feel a little plodding at times, but it often snaps into focus whenever it allows the man himself to wax nostalgic or cheerfully growl profanity.
Of course, it’s nice to see Robert Downey Jr., a man who has spent the last twenty years wearing a carefully controlled public face, let his emotional guard down in the film’s devastating final section. As difficult it is to watch Sr. physically and mentally deteriorate, it’s grounded by Jr.’s warmth towards his father. For much of the film, Jr. clearly plays to the camera in his interviews and interactions, maintaining an accessible impishness that made him a household name. (His most vulnerable moment might be when he sarcastically suggests that Paul Thomas Anderson is the son that Sr. wishes he had.) But it’s simply powerful when he tears up talking to his therapist about his father’s impending death or when he’s trying to uphold a cheerful disposition even when it’s clear that Sr. doesn’t know he’s talking to his son.
“Sr.” serves a few too many thematic masters, trying to be multiple different films at once without ever committing to any of them, but anyone who has any emotional investment in Robert Downey Sr.’s rebellious body of work will at least appreciate how he tries his best to make one last movie in his own image. There’s beauty in watching Sr. watch dailies, his spirit clearly buoyed by artistic possibility. He’s a man who says, “Yes” to every idea, even if it doesn’t prove fruitful. He loves the process of filmmaking even when the final product lies far out of reach. Despite its faults, “Sr.” honors that spirit through and through.
“Sr.” premiered at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.