Wednesday 12 April 2023

On demand: "Sr."

If you know of Robert Downey Sr. at this stage, it'll likely be for one or more of the following things: 1) the run of low-budget, offbeat-to-offbeam, quietly influential comedies he wrote and directed at the turn of the 1970s, most prominently 1969's adland satire Putney Swope; 2) his billing as "Robert Downey Sr. (a prince)" on the credits of Paul Thomas Anderson's early works; 3) his status as father to - you guessed it - Robert Downey Jr. An aptly irreverent profile of a prince in his final years (Downey Sr. died aged 85 in 2021, from complications with Parkinson's), Sr. finds the documentarist Chris Smith with his hands well and truly full. Smith's breakthrough doc, 1999's American Movie, centred on folks who had as little idea what to do behind the camera as they did standing in front of it. Here, the filmmaker finds himself being outmanoeuvred on two fronts: by a seasoned sometime director (Sr.), who has his own ideas of how a movie on his life and work ought to be framed, and then again by a relentless performer (Jr., here as a producer and middleman) who's always 'on', and generally enjoys hamming it up. We have the father to blame for this, we learn: St. gave the then five-year-old Jr. his first onscreen role in 1970's Pound, an eccentric quasi-prison flick that cast human performers in the roles of canines sequestered by the authorities. Sr. also gave Jr. the line "Does he have hair on his balls?" What follows over these ninety minutes is a film in which a child of the industry confronts one of his parents over a turbulent shared past: a countercultural The Fabelmans, if you will, its narrative newly littered with empty beer bottles, pills and wraps.

Amid the film's own tumult - and some part of this production visibly overlapped with Covid - a lot of worthwhile information and emotion is conveyed; it's a cherishably rare case of many cooks only adding to the richness of the broth. For starters, Sr. gives us an informed idea of the scene and places Downey emerged from, and the work that he did. (It benefits from the fact most of RDS's films have neither been widely available nor analysed to death: the images and ideas behind them strike us as fresh.) Smith makes some inroads into Downey's singular, somewhat guarded character: not even Tony Stark can blast the whole truth out of him, but he's often dryly funny in his observations. (Watching Jr. clown around with Sean Hayes at the piano, Sr. comments "it all looks sweetly narcissistic".) The film is never less than candid about its subject's seniority and infirmity: the tremors, aches and pains that disrupt the physical labour of filmmaking, the sessions of physio for a condition that will eventually leave Sr. bedbound. And after all the shits and giggles, Smith leaves us with the sight of a communion: a father and son united at the end, reviewing a life eventfully lived with a humour that reflects well on the pair of them. Jr. may be the only creative who's emerged from his MCU obligations with both his reputation and likability intact; the frankness with which he discusses his addiction issues, and the part his father had to play in those issues, speaks to years of top-dollar therapy, but it's also instructive in many ways. (You too could quit abusing your body and become a prominent superhero of your age - or, you know, a functional human.) Where Sr. matches American Movie is in the filming of an evident aura of love and affection - the love and affection that, in this instance, allows family members to broach any conversational topic without fear of judgement, and which steers them towards understanding, both of their own wayward steps and the stumbles of those around them. There would be worse places to arrive at in your twilight years; there are worse places to arrive at in middle age.

Sr. is currently streaming on Netflix.

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