At this point the world knows who Robert Downey Jr. is. In stark contrast, you’re welcome, time has flown by his father, Robert Downey Sr. A renegade of moviemaking from the 1960s, Sr. still has a devoted group of worshippers, including the great Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA, the Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, Licorice Pizza guy). Sr. the movie puts father and son back onscreen again, making dueling movies while exploring their relationship with one another.
Most of Sr. is focused on the older Robert Downey’s relationship to movies and his son. The doc uses as an arc Sr.’s film career, taking us through his filmmography and why it was so interesting to people like PTA and other progressive independent filmmakers at the time. Interspersed in those montages is Jr.’s interviews with his own dad, asking him questions about the filmmaking process. Seemingly straightforward, those questions are meant to disarm, to get under Sr.’s non emotional exterior to the real feelings Jr. hopes exist underneath: to simply see if his daddy loves him. Those scenes are never overwrought and cheesy, because you have the most charismatic movie star of the decade and his charming father doing the talking. Sr. even responds by deciding to make his own version of this documentary to the chagrin but mostly delight of Jr.
Underneath the amusing artistic banter, Chris Smith layers in some melancholy early on. That’s because Sr. has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. As the doc goes on, Sr. and Jr. feel an air of urgency to finish this one last project. Sr., shown as someone who prioritizes work over everything else, follows suit here, burying himself in the doc to distract himself from the specter of death growing in his body and mind. Jr. realizes this too, and really tries to get the last pieces of information he wants from his father before it’s too late. That emotional tension is handled sweetly and honorably by Smith, who finds himself becoming at times an intermediary between father and son to connect through the medium they loved.
The doc’s ending drives the point of Sr. home. This doc isn’t just one thing; it explores artists and how they express themselves, how to make movies, father and son relationships, and the story of a life. It’s beautiful and sweet, and will hopefully lead to the potent movie collaboration between PTA and Robert Downey Jr. that needs to happen yesterday.