“Sr.” Review: Robert Downey Sr. Documentary premieres at Telluride

Telluride: We follow the great Robert Downey Sr. in his final years as he attempts to make his own documentary about his life.

Hollywood, an industry steeped in dynasties, could never produce a more adorable, odd family couple than Robert Downey Sr. and Jr. The two represent, on the surface, something of an ironic ideological divide: the father, a legendary underground filmmaker whose countercultural works like ” Putney Swope” and “Greaser’s Palace” acted as middle fingers of 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 permanent cult figure vs. one of the most famous visages in the world. A notorious author against the symbol of cultural hegemony. Despite their differing 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”) perfectly understands that there is an amusing spark to the image of Sr. and Jr. fooling around together. His film Sr., a portrait of Robert Downey Sr. in the final years of his life as he struggles to complete a biographical documentary about his own life, feels at its most fleeting when he’s father and son together in the same frame indicates. These scenes clearly reveal a dynamic that clearly stretches back decades: while Sr. is constantly trying to set his own scenes on camera, encouraging Smith to intrude here or blocking subjects there, Jr. is messing with the extended family. When the two do b-roll and interview footage together, Sr. always tries to tinker with the footage while Jr. jokes about his father’s behavior. Similarly, the stories from Jr.’s unconventional childhood are just plain amusing, whether it’s Jr. remembering how he would fall asleep reading the dailies because his father put his crib in the editing room, or Sr. talking about it to call a retailer to force a ticket buyer to allow his son to see Marco Ferreri’s X-rated Le Grande Bouffe.

The backbone of “Sr.” follows two 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 will consist of the traditional version plus scenes where Sr. scouted the locations and recorded his editing. As Sr.’s Parkinson’s disease rapidly worsens over the course of the film’s production, we end up watching him co-edit his version from his bed while his mobility diminishes, but we never actually see his version of the footage. Although “Sr.” pays a fitting tribute to the man and his loving relationships, there is a noticeable absence of Sr.’s own personal touch to the material. It’s hard not to think of a version of “Sr.” which actually includes both cuts, rather dutifully charting the process.

The disjointed structure of “Sr.” might be sympathetically viewed as an attempted homage to his subject, whose best work was absurd and disjunctive, but it is more likely because its focus was negotiated and improvised as the issue progressed. “Sr.” ultimately it has a grab bag quality. Part of the film traces the director through his career, from his early shorts to his troubled late Hollywood films. Another portion chronicles Sr.’s relationship with his son, particularly their closeness over the years and his regrets at passing on his hedonistic, substance-abusing traits. Finally, it follows the final days of Sr.’s life as Jr. brings his own son to document their final moments together.

Sometimes these threads mesh seamlessly, as if contrasting Sr.’s own lost years in the mid-’70s when he made “Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight” with Jr.’s similar struggles a few decades later. At other times, Smith simply adopts an instinctive, rambling rhythm that mixes talking-head interviews with the likes of Norman Lear, Alan Arkin, and Sr.’s sister and third wife with Zoom interviews between Jr. and Sr. and B-roll -Stitches shots of Sr. walking around New York and clips from his films, all under a vague chronological framework. “Sr.” can feel a little ponderous at times, but it often jumps into focus as it allows the man himself to get nostalgic or cheerfully snarl obscenity.

Of course, it’s nice to see Robert Downey Jr., a man who’s spent the last twenty years wearing a carefully controlled public face, drop his emotional cover in the film’s devastating final segment. As hard as it is to see Sr. physically and mentally declining, it’s because of Jr.’s warmth towards his father. For much of the film, Jr. clearly plays with the camera in his interviews and interactions, maintaining an accessible mischievousness that has made him a household name. (His most vulnerable moment might be when he sarcastically hints that Paul Thomas Anderson is the son Sr. wants.) But it’s just powerful when he bursts into tears when talking to his therapist about his father’s impending death speaking or when trying to maintain a cheerful mood even when it is clear that Sr. does not know he is speaking to his son.

“Sr.” serves a few too many thematic masters and attempts to be several different films simultaneously without ever committing to any one of them, but anyone emotionally invested in Robert Downey Sr.’s rebellious work will at least appreciate that how he tried his best to make one last film in his own image. It is nice to watch Sr. looking at newspapers, his mind is clearly carried by artistic possibilities. He’s a man who says “yes” to every idea, even if it doesn’t work. He loves the filmmaking process, even if the end product is far beyond his reach. Despite its flaws, “Sr.” honors that spirit through and through.

grade B-

“Sr.” Premiered at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival. It is currently seeking US distribution.

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https://www.indiewire.com/2022/09/sr-review-robert-downey-sr-documentary-1234758175/ “Sr.” Review: Robert Downey Sr. Documentary premieres at Telluride

Lindsay Lowe

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