AFI FEST 2022 REVIEW! On the surface, Chris Smith’s biographical documentary Sr. – which traces the life of filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. – may seem meandering and run-of-the-mill, never truly reaching any coherent point. But dig a little deeper, and it begins to resemble one of its subject’s irreverent films, ones that somehow arrive at a logical conclusion after a slew of detours, red herrings, surreal moments of slapstick, tragedy, and breaking the fourth wall. As it progresses – and Smith cunningly makes it feel like the film attains a life of its own, guided not by directorial hands but by fate itself – Sr. becomes a touching ode to a formidable individual whose countercultural comedies influenced generations of filmmakers.
Now, one might say that breaking the fourth wall is par for the course when it comes to documentaries, yet here it goes beyond just folks addressing the camera. Upon hearing that he was the subject, Mr. Downey Sr. proposed that he would shoot an alternate version as seen through his eyes. The two perspectives merge in a sublime meta fashion, transporting the viewer directly inside the man’s wickedly sardonic, at times charmingly puerile mind.
Downey Sr.’s famous son guides the viewer through their lives; he interviews his father, who’s ailing from Parkinson’s, sometimes speaking directly, often over the phone, and finally – and most touchingly – alone with his son, bidding farewell to the patriarch, three generations of Downeys quietly bonding. He races through Dad’s career, from the controversial Putney Swope to the crazed, drug-fueled psycho-trip Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight – films that gave the finger to conventional narrative structure and the establishment. A young Downey Jr. appeared in many of the films himself, excited to be part of dad’s adventures.
“…transporting the viewer directly inside the man’s wickedly sardonic, at times charmingly puerile mind…”
Not all was gravy. Caught up in the cocaine craze, Sr. made Two Tons while utterly f****d-up, most of the time having no idea what was happening, which at least partially accounts for the film’s bat-s**t mental structure, acting, editing, and music. He openly shared his weed with Jr., which he’s come to severely regret. Whether this sort of unconventional parenting led to Jr.’s famous struggles with drugs remains somewhat debatable, yet Sr. is very clearly torn up about it.
The man himself, gentle and bitingly droll, wistful and optimistic, is, like most of us, a contradiction to an extreme that still amuses the heck out of his son. Shot in crisp black-and-white by Smith and his cinematographer (as well as producer/editor) Kevin Ford that accentuates every crease on his face, Downey Sr. talks about preferring New York over Los Angeles; he walks the streets of the Big Apple, lovingly reminiscing about corners and bridges and crossroads where he shot sequences. He also makes his son dress up in lederhosen and perform a traditional German song, with Sean Hayes accompanying on piano.
Like life itself, Sr. is ephemeral. “We’re here, we do stuff, then we’re gone,” Downey Jr. states towards the end of the film. He’s certainly cemented his status as one of pop cinema’s most iconic heroes, Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, bound to be remembered long after he passes. His fame may have eclipsed his father’s – but without a Sr., there would be no Jr.
Sr. screened at the 2022 AFI Fest.