How polished does a career-spanning documentary about the anarchic underground filmmaker behind Greaser’s Palace and Putney Swope need to be? Obviously, if you’ve seen any of Robert Downey’s films, the answer is: not very much. You could even say the scratchier the better. Such is the mindset behind “Sr.”, a light-hearted, seemingly insouciant portrait of the anti-establishment director (perhaps best known as the father of “Iron Man” star Robert Downey Jr.) that creeps up on you emotionally, In In the months before Downey succumbed to Parkinson’s disease, it acted as a kind of farewell exercise between the two generations (plus grandson Exton).
“Oddly enough, that’s what your family does. You make art out of your life,” Junior’s therapist analyzes fairly late in the process, not long before his father’s death. There’s no question that’s really what’s going on in an incredibly offbeat documentary that’s rumored to be directed by Chris Smith (“American Movie,” “Fyre”), but was incidentally kidnapped by its subject, given the impulse to make his , can’t resist own version of the movie we’re watching. That conceit only half works when Smith and cinematographer Kevin Ford give in to the old man and give “Senior” his own editing setup to play around with the footage they’re shooting.
It doesn’t seem like much at first – water balloon fights at Junior’s home in Hamptons and shaky visits to the duck pond outside Downey’s retirement home – but it’s not about making the next “terms of tenderness”. The project is both a bonding exercise and a coping mechanism, and the goal is to channel as much of the energy of father’s rogue film career as possible, which explains why all home theater quality digital footage has been stripped of its color. Most of Downey’s early work was shot in 16mm black and white, and the aesthetic is said to match – although clips from the Oedipal oddity Chafed Elbows (1966) have a distinctly raw feel, a few degrees removed from Andy Warhol experimentation and early John Waters films. (Talk show appearances and selected clips from later films add pops of color to the grayscale documentary.)
Downey was a main character in a side scene, working with actors like Lawrence Wolf and Taylor Mead on irreverent, bad-taste comedies that inevitably swayed the mainstream, as so often happens with side jobs. “Putney Swope” (1969) was Downey’s big hit because he dared to take on subjects that Hollywood studios would not dare. The film is set in an advertising agency on Madison Avenue, where the company boss dies and the only black director is elected to succeed him. The world isn’t ready for his (the character’s) ideas yet, but in a way the public is itching for such an unabashedly confrontational comedy. The film was successful enough for Downey to do another film – which, we learn, was pretty much all he asked of life.
The director gave his 5-year-old son Robert a role in the next Pound, and the boy was delighted. The creative energy of making underground films was always present in Junior’s life (he recalls falling asleep in one room while his parents were editing in the next), and acting became a means of doing things together do. “When I saw cameras, it felt like time with my dad,” says the younger Robert, who also fondly remembers mom, comedian Elsie Ann. (The older sister Allyson, who Downey also hired for his rowdy feature film work, is conspicuously absent from the exercise.)
Then the whole family moved from New York to Los Angeles, and things got complicated: Downey was a poor fit for studio projects like the R-rated military prank Up the Academy, for which the director wanted a much younger cast (as imitated in the Animal House” style, the film’s affiliation with Mad Magazine is never mentioned). During this time, drug use got so far out of control that his son took up the habit. Robert Downey Jr. has been very open about the destructive effects of growing up in such an environment, but there’s no question that a good portion of the audience will see “Sr.” mostly because they’re looking for glimpses into the movie star’s demons.
In the documentary, Downey takes responsibility for his son’s exposure to cocaine at such a young age. Audiences can feel the work both parties have put into repairing their relationship, and it’s touching to see the actor’s inner child come out when it comes to the old man. Junior lets dad direct and grants bizarre requests, like recording a German folk song with Will & Grace star Sean Hayes. Both parties need this process, whatever it is, as the pretense of making one last film together proves invigorating for dad (who comes alive on camera) and somehow cathartic for his son. It seems a bit perverted that such intimate footage should be edited into something for the public to see, and yet, as insanely specific as this family history may be, “Sr.” packs a punch at the end when it was made for father and son It’s time to say goodbye.
https://variety.com/2022/film/reviews/sr-review-robert-downey-jr-1235360192/ ‘Sr.’ Review: Robert Downey Jr. becomes vulnerable about his father in Doc