I want to preface this post by saying that I am a big RDJ fan. And I want to add sort of a caveat to the preface by also saying that I only like him in quirky anti-establishment flicks and “Iron Man.” That’s it.
And so: am I really a true fan of Robert Downey Jr.? I am a fan…of the man.
But when you place this man in some overstuffed tentpole flick—outside of Marvel flix of course—he’s just…boring.
Case in point, the new “Doctor Dolittle” movie, which is getting the sort of “dog” reviews we all kinda knew it was gonna receive. I’m not saying I could tell by a couple of glances at the official movie photos that it was going to bomb…it wasn’t as quick as a gander at a badly-done anthropomorphic Taylor Swift…but I could tell pretty fast Dolittle was going to bomb. And it is. Bombing. (At least, critically.)
It is at this point that I feel I should bring up the 1967 Doctor Dolittle film starring Rex Harrison, which also bombed. The heavily-licensed movie bombed so bad, in fact, toy companies shied away from making movie tie-ins for YEARS. Perhaps little kids just couldn’t warm up to a Rex Harrison doll. Maybe it reminded them of their dad. And not even a “cool” dad, like Race Bannon.
So part of what this all means—and I swear I’ll get back specifically to RDJ in a hot minute—is that the 1998 Dr. Dolittle, starring Eddie Murphy, is probably the best of the bunch. Maybe some of that was grounding his character in the current world and not some vague land of cravat-wearing whimsy that didn’t even seem to go over back in 1967.
Anyway, as much as I’ve been a fan of Robert Downey Jr., I had zero interest in seeing Dolittle. But I had little-to-no interest in watching his far better reviewed “Sherlock Holmes” series, as well. Because I really only like the actor in more indie/edgy flix like A Scanner Darkly, Zodiac or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. And the aforementioned Marvel movies (though, surprise, I will have to attach a caveat to that opinion as well).
And I think it’s because…these edgier roles seem to mesh better with RDJ as a person. For example, his role as one of the wacky drug addicts in “Scanner Darkly” couldn’t help but bring to mind his actual past as a (not-so-wacky) drug addict. There is a pre-existing context there—a context that actually enhances his portrayal. Then we can take that one big step forward with the “Iron Man” movies…Tony Stark being, in the comics, an ex-substance abuser. I don’t remember anymore how much that aspect of Stark was referenced in the films, but certainly the narrative of him rising up from having issues like a heart problem and PTSD paralleled Downey’s own recovery.
And so while Tony Stark, as played by Robert Downey Jr., is indeed arrogant and roguish and adorable…these personality traits are tempered with that recovery narrative. We could say: Stark/Downey earned the “right” to have that cocky persona. There is a vulnerability always under the surface.
Now, the problem I have with the “Sherlock Holmes” films—and Dolittle—is that they took that roguish, adorable, cocky charm but didn’t quite balance it out with that “weight” of the entire “coming back up from the dark night of the soul” narrative. Instead, they seem to trade off more on Downey’s perceived persona alone. Everybody seems to “like” RDJ, so…of course Dolittle is going to do gangbusters at the cinema.
The actual nature of the actor’s charm/metatextual meaning gets lost. But certainly, this is nothing new in Hollywood. In fact, it all seems to be a running theme…take something special (the metaphorical lightning-in-a-bottle), drain it of its uniqueness/power/edge, and render it another part of the machine (Iron Man pun/reference was not intentional here, but I’ll take it).
And my caveat regarding the Marvel films is that the further Stark seemed to get away from the core “Iron Man” movies and into the giant crossovers and Spidey films…the more he seemed to fall into that same “generic cool” quality. In my opinion. And yes, I know he died heroically in the “Infinity War” stuff and I guess I’m just a big heartless poop. Oh, well.