Every Monday morning, InsidePulse Movies Czar Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings an irreverent and oftentimes hilarious look at pop culture, politics, sports and whatever else comes to mind. And sometimes he writes about movies.
One of the things I’ve written about in the past but not in as much depth as I’d have liked to has been Robert Downey Jr. and his path back up from the dregs of Hollywood to A-list movie star. Mainly it’s been in association with other people, mainly Mickey Rourke and The Wrestler as well as Lindsay Lohan’s flailing attempts at staying afloat, but I’ve never gone into what I like to call a cinematic redemption on the man. And this week seems to be the perfect time, especially with his sequel to his other franchise in Sherlock Holmes being released this month in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
Downey doesn’t come from Hollywood royalty, as his father was an underground director most famous for the debacle that was making a film with MAD Magazine as opposed to anything major, so this isn’t a case of nepotism making it easier for him to be a star. He’s not Gwyneth Paltrow or Tori Spelling, moderately talented but advancing much further than they should’ve based on their talent based on being members of the lucky sperm club. His rise may have been aided by his father working in the industry but Robert Downey Sr. has worked on the fringes of Hollywood as a director and has a couple of high profile films in which he took small acting roles in with Tower Heist and To Live and Die in L.A being perhaps the biggest. His rise from being in his father’s films to his first level of fame in the 1980s was based on one undeniable thing: top level talent.
Look at ‘80s Robert Downey Jr. in terms of what he did. A small role in Weird Science isn’t bad but he steals scenes from Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School; throw in a brilliant performance in Less Than Zero and a lead role opposite ‘80s icon Molly Ringwald in The Pick-up Artist and it’s not all films with his father. And, more importantly, you see the talent level of Downey. Zero‘s perhaps the most important of these films because that film mirrored what his life was to become and showcased the talent that he had.
Out of all the actors who were in the teen skewed comedies of the ‘80s he’s easily the biggest star out of that group and has been so consistently. No matter how hard he’s fallen and built himself back up Robert Downey Jr. was always the guy who radiated “star” besides Tom Cruise from young actors in that era.
The ‘90s is where his drug problems spiraled out of control and led to his near banishment from Hollywood but he has plenty on his resume from that period to be proud of. Air America may not be remembered now because of Mel Gibson but back then Gibson was one of the biggest stars alive. Downey didn’t look out of place then, and doesn’t now, is remarkable in its own right. It’s easy to shrink in the spotlight when you’re a burgeoning actor and you’re sharing a film with one of the biggest stars alive; Downey Jr. looks every bit the star now and now when you see the cover it looks like a buddy comedy of two equally big stars back then for the unenlightened.
He was brilliant in Chaplin and lost out to Al Pacino’s Scent of a Woman. That was a great year for the category as you had Pacino plus Denzel Washington in Malcolm X as well as Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven. Throw in a strong role in Natural Born Killers and it’s not a lost decade but mainly Downey’s in a lot of small roles because he had a ton of drug related problems for most of the decade. From 1996-2001 he was the poster boy for the reason not to do drugs in Hollywood; his highest profile role then was arguably in U.S Marshalls.
Another arrest for drugs killed what appeared to be a career turnaround on Ally McBeal. That show collapsed seemingly right after he left and never recaptured that momentum he and Calista Flockhart had on screen in a fourth season that seemed to right a failing ship. And Downey finally kicked the drug habit, too, and 2001 is the year he redeems himself.
When Downey made a point of discussing how wonderful Mel Gibson was to his career, and how he deserves a chance at redemption, it wasn’t because they were good friends from Air America. It was because Gibson was responsible for Downey being able to work, paying for the insurance bond to allow his hiring for The Singing Detective. That film was bad but Downey was great in it, a recurring theme for the next seven years. Look at his cinematic resume up until Iron Man launched his career once again: Gothika, Eros, Game 6, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Good Night and Good Luck, The Shaggy Dog, A Scanner Darkly, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, Zodiac, Lucky You, A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints and Charlie Bartlett.
And they all share one refrain: Downey Jr. continued to be excellent on the screen as well as off it.
What’s amazing is that he just said “screw this” and kept working. No role was too small and even what was a cameo in Lucky You was good because Downey seemed to just want to be excellent every time there was a camera filming him. Especially with Lohan’s Playboy pictures leaking early this weekend and everyone tiptoeing around the “Marilyn Monroe” motif that Lohan is going for, looking at how Downey went from a guy looking for one more shot and taking tons of roles to do so is an interesting juxtaposition to Lohan trying to think Playboy will revitalize her career in one fell swoop.
Downey took interesting roles, of course, but it wasn’t a one shot attempt at trying to salvage his career. This was him consistently being a pleasure to work with on set, taking good roles and knocking them out of the park while moving up the chain of Hollywood again. Iron Man would cap it all but it wasn’t as if he disappeared into the abyss; Iron Man capped off what had been years in the making. If there’s a cinematic redemption of Lindsay Lohan I’ll be shocked because you don’t see her getting clean and knocking out as many roles as when Downey did the same to his.
Downey Jr. accomplished something that was remarkable and a sequel in his second franchise since sobriety is commendable.
A Movie A Week – The Challenge
This Week’s DVD – American: The Bill Hicks Story
You want to why Dennis Leary got successful? Because there’s no cure for cancer … and if you get that joke, you know and love Bill Hicks. This week I grabbed the film off of Hulu because it intrigued me. I had a DVD ready, and it’ll be up in a couple weeks (next week will be Things I Don’t Understand by David Spaltro), but I’d wanted to see the film but it never got into theatres near me. Thus Hulu made sense and I suffered through the ad breaks because I’m too cheap to actually do the Hulu Plus bit.
You can also watch the film on Hulu, complete with advertising breaks, below.
The film is a documentary on the life and death of Hicks, a stand-up comedian whose early death has given him the sort of deification that others in similar positions and early deaths have gotten like James Dean, Ritchie Valens, River Phoenix, Bruce Lee and Owen Hart. Hicks died of pancreatic cancer at 32, far too young, and American: The Bill Hicks Story is a documentary following his life and death. Focusing on his life in Texas and brief time in Hollywood, to his ascent to fame back though the Houston comedy scene, the film is a collection of Hicks’ friends and family discussing the legendary comedian in what is perhaps the single greatest airbrushing of a dead guy ever.
That’s the film’s main problem. It’s a great history of the comedian but nothing really negative about the guy comes out. It’s an incomplete portrait because it relies purely on his friends and family, mainly those included to brush over anything potentially negative about the guy, into something that almost gets so sweet that it gives you diabetes. It’s one-sided and heavy-handed at that; it’s hard to really gauge a guy by only listening to his allies.
The other thing that bugged me is that while it focused on his career as a standup it didn’t show how it influenced the next couple of generations of comics. Hicks is cited as one of the best ever at it and every comedian of note cites his albums as an influence but yet we never hear from any of them. I’d have loved to hear someone like Joe Rogan, Louis CK, Dane Cook, Carlos Mencia or any number of the top guys on the circuit discussing Hicks and his legacy. There’s no historical context or anything about his place in history except for a rare mention of how great he was, et al. It’s bothersome that someone with that much influence isn’t really shown that proper courtesy.
Bill Hicks is a comic’s comic but never someone who was massively successful; he may have been the funniest guy to stand up comics but he never had the sort of success his contemporaries did. Watch him on “Comedy’s Dirty Dozen” and he’s easily the funniest guy on it as well as the one whose influence on the art form is the greatest. I consider stand-up comedy an art form, a remarkably tough one at that, and as such I’m always curious about artists and inspiration.
It’s the same way with music, et al, which is why It Might Get Loud was something I really wanted to see. I watched it on DVD for ye olde column after reviewing it in theatres, so I’ve covered my thoughts on that film already. But with Hicks the main reason to look back at his life is because of what came forth from his influence as opposed to the person he was.
Yeah it’s interesting to see his roots, and the strange dichotomy between fans in Europe and in America in their affection for him, but Hicks is more important on a historical basis as opposed to anything else. That’s his ultimate legacy in whom he influenced and how he became much bigger in death than he ever was in life, as opposed to what he said or why he said it. Yet there’s nothing about this, nothing to show that influence, and it doesn’t really do anything but acknowledge his legacy in a brief manner.
He’s seen as a funny guy of importance who died young but nothing to give it context. We’re given a glimpse into his life by those who know him best, all his faults (and he had them, he was human after all) glanced over like they were traffic tickets. It’s a remarkably disappointing film in that regard; if you want to know his general life it’s a good starting point but nothing beyond that.
Recommendation to avoid.
What Looks Good This Weekend, and I Don’t Mean the $2 Pints of Bass Ale and community college co-eds with low standards at the Alumni Club
Alvin and the Chipmunk: Chipwrecked – Does anyone care but the kids at this point?
Skip it – If you spend money to watch this film, consider yourself fired from movies.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows – Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law return to foil Dr. Moriarty (one of the dudes from Man Men, I think) with Noomi Rapace showing up to be awesome.
See it – The first film was good and it grows on you with multiple viewings. I think this’ll probably end up doing the same.
Carnage (2011) – Two couples (Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) deal with their children’s problems or something.
See it – It has quite a pedigree as a theatrical production and it has a heckuva cast to boot.
The Lady – A biopic of Aung San Suu Kyi and the grand love of her life, Michael Aris. She’s a political activist in Burma to boot.
Skip it – It’s gotten some rancid buzz and Michelle Yeoh apparently doesn’t decide to go out and kill everyone, either.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol – Ethan Hunt and a wacky new crew are back. This time someone’s messed up Moscow and they have to find the guy who did it. Debuting on 400 screens in IMAX
See It – If six minutes opening up The Dark Knight Rises weren’t enough to entice you to see this, then the fact that it’s the live action debut of Brad Bird ought to be worth it as well.
Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @MMCritic_Kubryk.