Sr.: No More Excuses, by David Bax
“They said they wanted someone hipper but the part ended up going to Robert Downey.”
“If it was junior, I would have said junior.”
That’s a joke from an episode of Bojack Horseman. Specifically, a season one episode; the show and the jokes would get better as it went on. In any case, the implication there is that Robert Downey Jr.‘s father is not as hip as his son. Chris Smith‘s Sr. proves that the actual joke is on that episode’s writers. Even in his 80s and deeply afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, the now-late elder Downey appears still funny, cool as hell and actively directing and editing from his bed.
Perhaps in an homage to the 1960s films on which Downey Sr. made his name, like Babo 73, Chafed Elbows and No More Excuses, all leading up to his major breakthrough with 1969’s Putney Swope, Smith chooses to present Sr. in black and white. It’s a clever play to both recreate the anarchic, indie comedy of those movies as well as embrace the somberness with which a lack of color is mostly associated in the present. And so we have a funny, unconventional portrait of a man in the last days of his life.
Calling the film .Sr reminds us that there’s another famous Robert Downey. Keeping the megastar actor in our minds with that title is something Smith has done by design. The documentary, in fact, is less about Sr. than it is about the relationship between this particular, unique father and son. Jr. is more or less our host/main character while Sr. (and that’s how they refer to one another, by the way, “Sr.” and “Jr.”) often happily fills the role of the proud dad, even as Jr. jokingly suggest that Sr.’s dear friend Paul Thomas Anderson is the son he always wanted.
Not present in this family affair, having passed away in 2014, is Sr.’s first wife and Jr.’s mother, Elsie Downey. But the two men, as well as the film itself, make time to pay her respect. As an aside, check out Sr.’s 1975 Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight, a staggering showcase for the woman’s jaw-dropping talents. You won’t regret it.
As you might expect from a wildly comedic filmmaker like Sr. and a talented comic actor like Jr., there’s a lot of joking and good-natured ribbing between the two, who are both father and son and industry peers. One rich vein is the classic rivalry between Sr.’s beloved native New York City and Jr.’s adopted home of Los Angeles. “How do you get away with making a film in Los Angeles?! We’ve seen it all!”
But, of course, there’s also sadness. All of the hard-earned camaraderie between the two men carries with it the understanding that Sr.’s disease is taking it away, as it will soon take him away forever. As fans, we’ll always have Sr.’s movies. And now Jr. will always have Sr.