“Sr.” is complex and surprising in its construction, its focus at the crossroads of love and folly and the man who constantly put them on screen.
By the time Robert Downey arrived on the scene, New York City underground filmmaking already had its cadre of pranksters, misfits, and ne’er-do-wells. Andy Warhol had made an eight-hour-long movie, shot by Jonas Mekas in 1965, that simply consisted of a “single” shot of the Empire State Building, then subsequently walked out of every screening. Mekas himself, along with many others in the avant-garde scene that would culminate in the formation of Anthology Film Archives, had cranked out 8mm experimental films that could either be labeled “diaristic” or “formal” — intentional box-office poison. And John Cassavetes, the breakaway kid, had already made Faces, a dramatic investigation of race relations between Black jazz musicians and white hipsters that won the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival, validating at least the more serious side of the anti-Hollywood city-bred eccentrics. Years earlier, a little American neorealist picture called Little Fugitive was shot on location in Coney Island and had enough success to inspire an even bigger winner, François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. New York City’s culture of independent cinema was already successful, counter-cultural, shocking, experimental, and ultimately something that would inspire a few choice words from the bourgeois moviegoers, which, in turn, would give nothing but pleasure to these yippie-adjacent artists. That Robert Downey made a splash in that environment says a lot about both him and his work.
“Sr.”, the newest film from American Movie director Chris Smith, presents this maverick in his final days as he succumbs to the effects of Parkinson’s disease. However, this was not the intention of the movie. Instead, his son, the patronymic actor who got his big break playing a five-year-old questioning a man-dog about the hairiness of his genitalia in Downey Sr.’s Pound, only to later became associated with a certain comic book character, produced the film as a simple way to celebrate and further get to know his father. In Chris Smith fashion, that means a film about filmmaking, and, sure enough, the straightforward documentary structure often breaks to give the audience some behind-the-scenes critiques of the previous scene from the subject himself. Downey Sr. uses this as an opportunity to make one last movie, one that’s embedded somewhere in this one, thanks to his moviemaking instincts taking over, causing him to constantly correct the framing, editing, and blocking of Smith and DP/editor Kevin Ford. The result is a film authored by both Downeys (Jr.’s filming of his production notes gives a clue that he’s really running the show here) as much as Smith. Early shots show Sr. in his living room accompanied by editing software and a patient production team as he plays coy about the details of his life, favoring shots that show him walking around his old downtown haunts; later in the film, as he lies prone in bed from the final stages of Parkinson’s, he nods at his TV (connected to Ford’s editing suite) and thanks them for their collaboration.
What is this film about? It’s difficult to say, and Jr. even has a hard time describing what the audience has seen by the end. Part of it covers Downey’s entire career for the uninitiated, featuring clips of his breakout Chafed Elbows, his revolutionary satire Putney Swope, his failed studio film Up the Academy, all the way to his final work, Rittenhouse Square. But Jr.’s involvement suggests that it’s about much more. Indeed, Sr. was always eager to put his wife, the actress Elsie Ann Downey, and son in his works, as evidenced by clips from Pound and wacky Western Greaser’s Palace, where an eleven-year-old Jr. gets his throat slit by God, then returns to life (most of his movies are like this). However, Sr. enjoyed his family’s involvement perhaps a bit too much, allowing his small children to partake in his vices — booze and weed. It’s no secret that Jr. later, like his father, got involved with too much cocaine; it’s less well-known how much Jr. blames this on his father. The film thus sometimes takes a therapeutic tone for Jr. the producer, as clips from Greaser’s Palace mesh with family videos and Zoom conversations with Jr.’s therapist on the topic, right to the very end where Jr. and Sr. have a frank, if circuitous, conversation about the matter at Sr.’s death bed, which still somehow ends up pretty funny.
Finally, it’s about the dying, with Sr.’s effecting a lively “come see how big the ducks outside my apartment are since the last time you shot” then suddenly feeling too woozy to stand, hinting at what’s to come. Sr. barely cracks a smile, but he’s lively, witty, sardonic as they visit an old location (Great Jones Hall) from Putney Swope: “That’s where we paid a bum fifty bucks to be in the movie.” Though he mentions the Parkinson’s diagnosis early in the film, pointing to a slightly shaking hand, the family was generally positive; by the time he’s bed-ridden, the film, especially the making of Sr.’s version, takes on a more solemn tone. The final shots of Sr., composed under a poster of Alexander Korda’s 1932 Marius, show father and son slyly joking that Sr. knew this would happen. They reference a character in his Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight mentioning that she’d die from “Charlie Parkinson’s disease” and share one last laugh. His films always do have one more trick left, no matter how many times they’re played.
And what films! Robert Downey Sr. somehow managed to have an entire career without ever once forming a single coherent narrative. Each feels more like a sketch show, maybe a prank show, maybe more a demented Looney Tunes episode, with goofs cracking wise and other goofballs cracking wiser. That Greaser’s Palace is ostensibly about a huckster in a Western setting doesn’t prepare the audience for God killing Robert Downey Jr., nor does it prepare them for the eccentric actors (Alan Arkin calls them “the weirdest folks he could find on Bowery”) who dot the screen. Only a bit of love for the films comes through in “Sr.” as Sr. himself isn’t inclined to talk much about them. He’d rather listen to his grandson ask him, as Jr. once asked in Pound, “Have any hair on your balls?” It’s a reminder that all the directors of this movie — Smith, Downey Jr., Downey Sr. — want to focus on the crossroads of love and folly and the man who constantly put them on screen.
You can currently stream Chris Smith’s Sr. on Netflix.