Sr.: a loving portrait of Robert Downey, père

Though it might easily have slipped into the sentimental or self-serving, this intimate tribute to the maverick filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., co-produced by his son and directed by Chris Smith, is piercing and poignant.

2 December 2022

By Hannah McGill

Robert Downey Sr. and Robert Downey Jr. in Sr. (2022)
Sight and Sound

The title of this loving family portrait acknowledges the unusual set-up underpinning the film. Its subject was once the most notorious movie-making Robert Downey; these days, his son has made their name one of the most recognised in all of showbusiness. The actor Robert Downey Jr. clearly knows that it’s primarily his own name recognition that will stimulate interest in his father, the experimental writer/director/occasional actor Robert Downey Sr. And yet the dynamic captured here, by the exceptionally deft Chris Smith, is one in which “Senior” is clearly his son’s chief influence, and someone Junior craves to impress. Smith – a star of the 1990s independent documentary scene who has since given Netflix some of its most acclaimed documentaries – filmed the Downeys in conversation and interaction from 2019, when Senior started to succumb to Parkinson’s, through to his death in 2021.

With Junior serving as its producer and dominant onscreen voice, this film could easily have slipped into the sentimental or self-serving, and sometimes threatens to. But Smith – director of Fyre (2018) and Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017) – knows a little about the nuanced depiction of maverick egos. While Junior is as both-barrels charming as can be, he is also gently exposed: superstar he may be, but he can’t control this project, his father, his father’s encroaching illness or either of their legacies. A mooted plan to have Senior assemble his own version of the film doesn’t quite pan out – but it does provide a clever way into a father-son relationship that feeds on competition and historical hurt as well as mutual affection. This relationship was “complicated,” Junior says, “in that most of his attention was on the process of chasing the muse”. For a period, the rest of it went on drugs and alcohol. Junior, all therapy-enabled openness, is keen to rehash this period. “I would sure love to miss that discussion,” replies his more taciturn father.

Elsewhere, there’s a jokey yet piercing acknowledgement of the radically different furrows the two men have ploughed – Senior an eternal outsider, cash-strapped but rich in credibility; Junior one of the highest-paid mainstream entertainers in history. “It’s well known that Paul Thomas Anderson is probably the son my dad wishes he had,” says Junior of the filmmaker whose fandom has helped to keep Senior’s name current, “and that they [both] like to rub that in my face.” The point of this film is to emphasise love and not dysfunction; yet it’s these discreet acknowledgments of mistakes, insecurities and problems, that make it particularly moving.

► Sr. is available to stream on Netflix now.

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