The New Robert Downey Sr Documentary Is More Annoying Than Avant-Garde

Robert Downey Jr’s documentary tribute to his father, Sr., wants to mimic his dad’s avant-garde filmmaking. But the film lacks coherence, and its subject and filmmaker’s obscene wealth gets in the way of making that case.

Robert Downey Sr and Robert Downey Jr in the new documentary Sr. (Netflix)

A Netflix documentary about counterculture filmmaker Robert Downey Sr, directed by his much more famous actor son, Sr. charts the last three years of the life of “Bob Sr” before he dies of Parkinson’s disease in 2021 at age eighty-five. Since the content itself is inherently poignant, it’s remarkable how stubbornly uninvolving much of the film is.

Though this makes sense in a way — the documentary is a tribute to Downey Sr as a person and a filmmaker, and Sr’s approach to filmmaking involves a love of offbeat humor and tangential incidents, and a refusal to offer up meaning, structure, or any clear agenda. Personally, Sr. is also eccentric and opaque. His favorite response to the probing questions posed to him throughout the documentary by a seemingly worshipful Robert Downey Jr, who wants to understand his difficult father before he dies, is “Who knows?”

This film is likely to play a lot better for those who are on the wavelength of the avant-garde and underground filmmaking of the 1960s and ’70s. That’s the spiritual home of Sr, whose most famous film is the outrageous, racially incendiary satire of the advertising world, Putney Swope (1969), with its famous poster of a giant hand giving the middle finger and the slogan “Up Madison Avenue.” The film includes interviews with huge admirers of Sr besides his son, who calls what Sr does on film “so next-level.” There’s actor Alan Arkin, and also director Paul Thomas Anderson, a ’60s film fanatic who cast Sr in a bit part in Boogie Nights and named the Don Cheadle character Buck Swope.

There’s a tendency on the part of Sr’s ardent fans in the documentary to keep reiterating how magnificent and challenging a filmmaker Sr is. Yet the film refuses to make any coherent case for him. It’s presented as a given. Actor Allan Arbus appears in a clip doing a wonderful monologue in Sr’s 1972 film Greaser’s Palace, which finally provides an impressive sense of the kind of effects Sr could achieve — skewed humor fostering a strangely benign view of people flailing around in the chaos of the world. Too bad it doesn’t run till the end of the documentary, but it does throw a lifeline to those of us struggling with Sr.

But what we’re tending to see is an often annoyingly arrogant and self-involved old man who has family members hovering around him, trying to coax responses out of him, which are generally regarded as oracular. Sr’s greatest charm, as presented here, is a tendency toward sudden enrapturement, such as his delight in tracing the progress of the ducklings growing up in the park, or becoming an acolyte for a summer of a little girl violinist who plays on the street.

Shot in crisp black-and-white, the film leaps around in time and place, though it’s mainly set in Los Angeles, where Robert Downey Jr lives, and in New York City, where Sr found refuge after a disastrous attempt at mainstream Hollywood filmmaking in the 1980s. By then, he was addicted to cocaine and marijuana, which he claims is the reason “the whole thing fell apart,” meaning his first marriage and the better part of his alternative film career. The issue of his hip-parent tendency to share joints with his son, which is blamed for kicking off Robert Downey Jr’s legendary drug addiction, is tiptoed around in the film.

So there’s a cursory biographical narrative running through the documentary, but not enough to satisfy conventional narrative demands, because all the digressions and asides and metacommentary pay tribute to Sr’s alternative cinema as well by drawing on many of its tendencies.

I used to teach a basic course on avant-garde film history, so I’m a little more at home than most in the world of alternative cinema, with its elliptical, digressive, anti-rationalist, counternarrative, meta-mad qualities. I see the classic alt-moves being made. For example, there’s an insistent demonstration of how a certain bit of dialogue is staged at the outset. Sr’s wife Rosemary Rogers is given a line to say when she’s asked by Robert Downey Jr how long they’ve been married, which is “fifteen-hundred years.” We see three different takes — her position is changed in take two, moving her to the center of the shot between the two men; Jr keeps getting up between takes — until they finally nail the bit.

Much later in the documentary, Rogers will say the same line again, apparently impromptu, in answer to the same question put by a certain woman they randomly meet in the street. But of course, long before then, you’re encouraged to wonder how much of the documentary has been written and staged in this way, how much is spontaneous, and how much it matters.

Even in the most potentially poignant moments, there are these distancing effects. For example, in what is apparently Sr’s last scene before his death, we see Jr describing how the shot will track into a close-up on him as he answers certain questions Jr asks that are extremely fraught, such as what Sr “would like his kid to know” after all is said and done. And then, when we see the dramatic tracking-in shot, after the buildup, nothing that merits such a shot is happening.

Sr has no more revelatory things to say about his life or his relationship to his son at the end than at the beginning. And we recall that Jr says early on, “I think he’s having us all on,” as if the entire documentary is an irreverent send-up of the idea of trying to extract meaning from a life at the point of death.

There’s even an extraordinary bit of business which is sheer black comedy — maybe. We can’t tell if Sr, who’s essentially on his deathbed, can’t articulate his answers because of the effects of the Parkinson’s disease that’s killing him, or because he’s becoming mentally fogged, or because he’s no more willing or able than he ever was to reveal himself. Sr asks for a pen, as if he’s about to write some truly momentous final message. Then there’s a long, protracted bit of business as he’s trying to get the pen cap off.

“Do you want me to just, uh, pop that off for you?” asks Jr as the struggle continues long past the point that “Cut!” would be called in a mainstream film.

Sr eventually scrawls something on a piece of paper, but never shows it to Jr as far as we can tell. We certainly never see it.

After Sr’s death, Jr is FaceTiming with a friend and pauses to ponder his father’s life. There’s a close-up of him in profile, gazing off in deep reverie, that becomes uncomfortable as you recall that Jr is also directing the film. He presumably set up that shot and then acted it.

Still from Sr. (Netflix)

These kinds of distractions are clearly intentional — we’re meant to ponder what the style and structure of film is conveying, and what the attitude of the Downeys is toward the project. There’s even a moment when Jr is trying to figure out what Sr’s agenda is in collaborating on the film, as if it must be some deep game he’s playing, when he suddenly shouts at his father, “Oh, I know what you’re doing, I know—!”

Jr never tells us what he claims to know.

But there’s another distraction that probably isn’t intentional, and that’s the wealth and leisure and ease of the circumstances. Though Sr and his family start off broke as often as not when he’s a young underground filmmaker, Jr’s spectacular success as an actor from teenage years on fills practically every frame of the documentary with the trappings of wealth. Oh, the spaciousness of houses and grounds that surround the little cast and crew of filmmakers! There’s a lordly command from Sr to have a complete editing suite set up in his home in New York so he can do his own cut of the documentary, and lo, it is done. An ordinary shot of Jr at his desk on his computer becomes eye-popping when you see he’s sitting in front of a huge Keith Haring painting.

It’s such a portrait of people with infinite time and money to make a tricky, digressive, yet fulsome and elaborate documentary tribute while charting the process of dying in ease and comfort, that if you’ve ever lost a loved one in terribly straitened circumstances, wondering how to cover the bills, glued to the phone pleading with medical personnel and insurance company reps, trying to figure out if you can afford an in-home caregiver or health aide, which of course you can’t, you really should skip this one.