There are worse descriptions, as actor typecasting goes, than “wisecracking superhero.”
Then again, if you’re Robert Downey Jr. and colorful descriptions are what you trade in, it could start to feel a little bit limiting.
The wheel turns quickly in Hollywood. What barely six years ago was talk of “Can Downey really pull off a superhero?” has slowly changed into “How much longer is Downey going to keep doing this superhero thing?” Four times out as Iron Man (with a fifth such tentpole, “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” on the way in May) and a couple of superhero-like Sherlock Holmes pictures, and that can start to happen.
So an actor who’s morphed from wunderkind to cautionary tale to comeback story to (in some minds) a cliché, all seemingly before our eyes, is seeking a new phase, something less describable, though that doesn’t mean Downey won’t try.
“The first [Iron Man] was heart, heart, heart,” he said. “Now the Tony Stark persona is eating itself. It hasn’t gotten away from me. But I realize I’m on the wheel.”
The actor has a don’t-call-it-a-plan plan, an idea for another act, one in which he essentially aims to combine the freshness and intimacy of his early chapter with the clout and bankability of his recent one.
Step one in that process is “The Judge,” out Friday. The first movie to come from Team Downey — both a state of mind and, as a production company he founded with his wife Susan four years ago, a legal entity — “The Judge” is a throwback courtroom and family melodrama that tries to have it both ways, in a good way.
It’s directed by a Hollywood comedy mainstay in David Dobkin (“Wedding Crashers”) and contains a big John Grisham-style hook — but is also, in the manner of a bona fide drama, driven by a father-son blood feud, interested in emo-soundtrack melancholy and full of intense moments with Robert Duvall.
When Downey’s slick Chicago lawyer Hank returns to his small-town Indiana home upon the death of his mother, he finds himself in a complicated dance with his estranged dad, the titular judge (Duvall), who has been accused of murder and eventually reluctantly hires Hank to defend him. “The Judge” doesn’t entirely tone down Downey’s more gregarious, Tony Starkian instincts (your “hyper-verbal vocabulary vomit,” as the love interest played by Vera Farmiga says of his character in the film). But it doesn’t always use them as a crutch either.
Susan Downey described the viewer experience of the film as “watching the Robert they think they know, who’s quick-witted and fast-talking and very smart, but he’s on an emotional journey where those tricks won’t work.”
Or in the patois that could be called Downey-speak, he said, “I think what you can tell is if you feel like you’re hitting the same note you need to flex, and the funny thing is I would find myself weeping not really for my own catharsis because the effective story, A to Z, is laid out, and it ceases to be what it’s talking about, but how these themes and algorithms unfold for me.”
Downey is restless on a couch at the Toronto International Film Festival — lying one way feet out; lying another, feet up — just hours before “The Judge” will open the annual prestige-cinema gathering. In that interview and another somewhat more relaxed phone conversation from his home in Los Angeles, the actor comes off as highly aware of his own image, the divisions it has caused fans, the restlessness it has stirred in him.
In person he can seem both larger than life and child-like, especially given his enthusiasm. Farmiga describes it as “I love him like I love a puppy. He comes at you with a hundred ideas, bounds off you and lands in your lap. He’s a border collie.”
He has a manner of speaking that can seem at once direct and circuitous. Downey is a rare beast, an actor who, thanks to a personality he deploys to unique effect on the screen, makes it harder than most for us to distinguish between public persona and private life.
Said Susan Downey: "He’s one of the most grounded people you’ll ever meet, and you’ll be able to have that conversation with him. And as soon as you feel that way, he’ll go on a tangent you’ll have no ability to follow.” She laughed. "I think he’s wired differently than a lot of us, and as much as he makes attempts every day to be a linear thinker, it’s really not his default setting. She added, “It’s really exciting for everyone else, but I think it can sometimes be exhausting for him.”
(Of Susan Downey, pregnant with the couple’s second child and his guide and producer in more tangible Hollywood ways, Robert Downey said, “My wife points true north. People think she’s Spock with [breasts], and what she presents to the world is a very structured personality, but she’s this highly intuitive, creative person.")
In fact, Susan Downey pushed “The Judge” in the midst of all the “Iron Man” madness several years ago — Dobkin had devised the idea after the death of his mother and thought Downey would be the perfect man to play a sharpie brought low — even as the actor told his wife that he didn’t want to reprise a legal role after doing that in “True Believer” and “Ally McBeal." She persisted, and eventually persuaded him.
With its swings between heavy-lidded drama and glib comedy, “The Judge” has a schizophrenic quality that has polarized some viewers. That took particular shape in a bathroom scene that was maligned by some at Toronto. In the scene, breaking from some of the Downey-like one-liners that came not long before, Hank and Duvall’s judge, who is suffering from a terminal illness, have at it emotionally. The scene ends when Hank holds his father as the latter loses control of his bodily functions.
Perhaps because he produced and helped shape the movie, or perhaps because he’s simply invested in this career phase in a different way these days, Downey offers an impassioned defense of the scene.
“It’s meant to be disquieting, not graphic; the judge is meant to be completely exposed in that moment,” he said. “Someone you have a hot, contested relationship and can plunge the dagger in, and in the midst of that moment something like that happens. I can tell you, something like that has happened a half-dozen times in my life and no matter how much friction you have with someone, if they’re metaphorically bleeding you tend to them.”
As an old-school piece, “The Judge” stands in sharp contrast to the slick entertainment of modern Hollywood, and you can imagine someone who wants to get a away from that kind of moviemaking while at the same time not descending into preciousness (“Beware the passion project,” Downey says, making a cross with his fingers) choosing exactly this kind of zeitgeist denial. Downey has, indeed, gone against Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes type with this film — not by returning to the hard-boiled “Less Than Zero” or the quiet charms of “Chaplin” of his early career but by heading to a time when tentpole entertainment was about emotional fireworks, not whiz-bang effects. Downey calls the film “a really nice, long intermission between outright capitalism.”
So can he do it? Can Downey play someone different from who he’s been, when his private skills and public personality are so bound up with one another, when his Downey-ness is so embedded in our culture?
He and Susan believe he can. Even as Team Downey develops “Sherlock Holmes 3,” there’s a project about the World War II naval carrier the Indianapolis and a new take on “Pinocchio” in the works, and other movies that Downey could produce or act in or even write, as well as several TV dramas the company is developing. Downey talks of himself as “coming from a world of off-Broadway that closes after one night.” He described a meeting with Robert Redford recently in which Redford talked about suffering on an independent film. “And my reaction was, ‘I want that.’”
“He has a unique vision and I think we’ve only scratched the surface of it,” Susan Downey said of her husband.
Or as it sounds in Downey-speak:
“It’s interesting. There’s an opportunity in placing your worth just slightly out of your own skin, and wanting to prolong a projection of what you represent in an industry instead of saying, ‘This too shall pass.’ But my biological clock is running the show. I’m turning 50 next year, and maybe there’s a few more in me. [But] time is the only nonnegotiable integer.”
Then he takes a pause to go linear. “I think it would be a shame if I squandered whatever opportunity has arisen by just playing it safe.”
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