Considering his status as a two-time Academy Award nominee and one of Marvel’s biggest stars, it may be hard to imagine Robert Downey Jr. was once overshadowed by his filmmaker-father, Robert Downey Sr. In fact, for much of his early career, the man who played Tony Stark was referred to in the industry as “Bob Downey’s kid.”
For Netflix, director Chris Smith (”American Movie”, “Fyre”) and producer “Bob Downey’s kid” collaborated on “Sr.,” a documentary that’s more than just a look at the life, death, and legacy of “Iron Man’s dad.” It’s a story about a father and son making the most out of the time they have left by sharing a mutual love of their craft. Shot over three years from 2018 to 2021, “Sr.” is a time capsule recording world events, particularly the pandemic as the Downeys become their own bubble, while also serving as a poignant document of the decline of its subject’s health due to Parkinson’s disease.
Sr., as Robert Downey Jr. calls his dad throughout the film, was a countercultural icon whose early films like 1969′s “Putney Swope” and 1970′s “Pound” scandalized and invigorated audiences in equal measure. “Sr.” the movie is shot in black-and-white as an homage to “Swope” and earlier works, lending it a distinguished air.
As a 5-year-old, Downey Jr. made his debut in “Pound,” an X-rated, live-action film about dogs waiting to be euthanized at an animal shelter. The dogs are all played by human actors including Antonio Fargas, who also appears in “Putney Swope.” Downey Jr.’s first line in “Pound” isn’t printable in a family newspaper, but it makes two appearances in “Sr.” — as a multigenerational torch passing of raunch, he gets his own kid to say it on camera.
“Sr.” features clips from all of Robert Downey Sr.’s films, including the eight collaborations where he directed his son. Since Downey’s films were often family affairs, we also get scenes featuring his first two wives, Elsie Ann Ford (Downey Jr.’s mother) as well as the studio film he made with his daughter, Allyson.
Coincidentally, that studio film for Warner Bros., 1980′s “Up the Academy,” was my introduction to the films of Robert Downey Sr. My cousin and I successfully snuck into this R-rated feature debut of Ralph Macchio; we were duly punished for our sins by its awfulness. “Sr.” informs us that its star, Ron Leibman, sued to have his name removed from the film. Even Mad Magazine, which had seen “Up the Academy” as its answer to “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” didn’t want to have anything to do with the final result.
The elder Downey’s own review of “Up the Academy” is also not suitable for a family newspaper. Suffice it to say, he wasn’t a fan.
Speaking of fans, director Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the few non-relatives to appear onscreen (Norman Lear is another), and he discusses how his admiration led him to cast Downey Sr. in 1997′s “Boogie Nights” and 1999′s “Magnolia.”
Comparisons between the two Downeys are inevitable for viewers, especially if they know something about the duo. Downey Jr. definitely looks like his dad, for starters, and they both had battles with drugs. One thing that struck me that I hadn’t thought about before was how “Putney Swope” influenced Downey Jr.’s controversial blackface role in 2008′s “Tropic Thunder.”
In “Swope,” the titular Black board member accidentally becomes the head of an otherwise all-white ad agency because the other members voted for him in a secret ballot. Their rationale was that he couldn’t win. Swope replaces all but one white employee with Black hires, and the new firm becomes a success churning out unconventional ads.
Downey Sr. didn’t like the voice of his lead Black actor, Arnold Johnson, so he re-looped the dialogue himself with a stereotypical, raspy “Black voice” that, in retrospect, sounds a lot like the one Downey Jr. uses in his Oscar-nominated supporting turn. Being a provocateur runs in the family.
Even at his weakest, when Parkinson’s was taking its toll, Downey Sr. never lost his mischievous streak nor his desire to work. One of the subplots of “Sr.” shows the elder Downey making his own competing (and complementary) documentary about his life. His eye for the unusual and the absurd makes for a compelling contrast. Smith incorporates clips from Downey Sr.’s feature into his film; I hope Netflix makes the entire thing available as an added feature.
At the end of “Sr.,” Robert Downey Jr. tries to categorize the result of his collaboration with Smith. Is this a straight-up documentary, he wonders, or is it something else entirely? Several elements fall squarely into documentary territory, like the comparisons between the path to substance abuse father and son took, or the viewer learning the reasons Robert John Elias, the grandson of Lithuanian Jews, adopted his Irish stepdad’s last name, Downey. But Smith and his subjects stretch the boundaries, turning “Sr.” into a celebration and a eulogy, a love letter written by its recipient and its sender.
Directed by Chris Smith. Starring Robert Downey Sr., Robert Downey Jr., Norman Lear, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Alan Arkin. On Netflix Dec. 2. 89 min. R (strong language, raunchy humor)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.