Culture

Is Robert Downey Jr. a good actor?

In the 12 years since he started playing Iron Man, he has made millions of dollars and zero interesting creative choices.
Culture

Is Robert Downey Jr. a good actor?

In the 12 years since he started playing Iron Man, he has made millions of dollars and zero interesting creative choices.

The reviews for Dolittle are apocalyptic. It’s “not a film,” says Scott Tobias, writing for NPR, but rather “a crime scene in need of forensic analysis.” “An out-and-out disaster,” says Peter Travers at Rolling Stone. David Sims, at the Atlantic, calls it “one of the worst cinematic fiascoes I’ve seen in years” — mere weeks after the release of Cats. Cats!

But you will not need baffled reviews from horrified critics to tell you that Dolittle, largely based on the book The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting, is a bad, bad movie. You can just watch the trailer:

Everything about this trailer ought to give you the heebie-jeebies. The dirge-y, opioid, Death Cab for Cutie-ass cover of "What a Wonderful World" that drones along behind it. The syrupy golden-hour lighting in virtually every frame. The CGI menagerie of wacky animals, none of them depicted doing anything more engaging or visually dynamic than moving their necks weirdly while saying, like, “Oh snap!” or some shit. And most discouragingly of all, the fact that the makers of the trailer, sifting through at least an entire movie’s worth of footage in order to pull out what most appealingly advertises an opportunity to watch one of the most famous movie-stars presently living, evidently could find no moments that recommend Robert Downey Jr.’s performance better than a few brief clips of him whisper-grunting “Yes” and “Hello” in a bad accent with a look on his face like he hopes nobody has smelled the shit in his pants just yet.

There were other ominous portents: the release date smack-dab in the middle of the January dumping season; the delays that pushed it there from its earlier planned April release; reports that those delays were made to accommodate extensive rewrites and reshoots (apparently the added scenes include one in which the titular doctor pulls a set of bagpipes out of a CGI dragon’s asshole, which frankly is the best thing I have learned about this movie). And then there is the fact that it stars Robert Downey Jr. and he is not playing Iron Man in it.

This is Downey’s first attempt at portraying anybody but Iron Man in a feature film since 2014’s The Judge, a bland and utterly familiar middlebrow The Difficulty Between Fathers And Sons drama notable only and entirely for the mystery of a movie star who seems like he ought to be able to get literally any story in existence filmed at his discretion finding some reason to star in and executive-produce it. Prior to that (and leaving aside a cutesy glorified cameo in Jon Favreau’s Chef, presumably done as a favor to the director of the Iron Man movies), he’d last played anybody but Iron Man in 2011’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, a mostly redundant sequel to 2009’s Sherlock Holmes, the movie that dared to ask the question “What if Snatch had Robert Downey Jr. in it?”

Sandwiched between the Holmeses: Due Date (2010), the weakest and least memorable of the late-aughts, post-Apatow/post-Hangover R-rated dudebro comedies as well as a shameless ripoff of Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987). Before that, The Soloist (2009), a truly risible piece of feel-good white-savior crap that featured Downey and Jamie Foxx all but explicitly competing for acting-award nominations. Not all of these movies are straight-up badThe Soloist is pure garbage, while the Holmes movies are at least diverting — but neither are any particularly good, and Downey delivers a memorable or vivid performance in none of them.

Did he make a deal with Satan that in exchange for the restoration of his career, he could never again star in any non-MCU movie that anyone would remember for reasons other than how bad it sucked?

Twelve years have elapsed since 2008’s Iron Man and Tropic Thunder (both of which have aged like bananas, for what it’s worth) announced Downey’s full and permanent return to real-deal movie stardom, after his long personal and professional struggles with what his Wikipedia page hilariously euphemizes as "substance abuse and legal troubles." In those 12 years he has made some of the most lucrative movies of all time… and literally not even one artistically noteworthy or ambitious movie or performance in which he portrayed anyone not named Tony Stark. Even granting that the countless hours spent standing in front of giant green screens pretending to shoot lasers out of his hands have left little time for, like, playing Ahab in a faithful big-budget adaptation of Moby-Dick or whatever, it’s kind of bizarre that even the non-Iron Man movies he has made have been so uniformly forgettable, and his performances in them so undistinguished.

Robert Pattinson made a squadillion bucks and permanent endless fame off of the dopey Twilight movies and has spent his free time doing weird austere art films where he honks off to a mermaid in a 19th-century lighthouse, honks off in outer space, and gets his prostate honked in a limo during the collapse of civilization. Daniel Radcliffe made infinity dollars playing Harry Potter and now he punishes himself in bonkers movies where he plays a farting corpse with a magical boner or gets lost in the jungle and has to cut a worm out of his own damn forehead. Scarlett Johannson, who like Downey will likely never need to work again thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has at least spent some of her downtime between portrayals of Black Widow doing ambitious, memorable left-field shit like Under the Skin or voicing a sentient artificial intelligence in Her or taking a flyer on a nutbar project like Jojo Rabbit. Kylo Ren will keep Adam Driver’s bills paid for the rest of his life, and damn near every other movie he’s been in has been some carefully chosen independent movie where he got to play a distinct oddball and/or a memorably neurotic dickweed. This makes sense, and is good. What is the point of playing the same character over and over again in a multibillion-dollar corporate franchise if not so that you can earn for yourself the freedom to take whatever chances you want, personally and professionally and artistically, forever after?

By that line of reasoning it’s pretty alarming that frickin’ Robert Downey Jr., whose professional prospects are at least as secure as any of theirs, pretty much only pops up outside of the MCU once every three years to mumble “I learned it from watching you, Dad” at an ostrich voiced by Gene Hackman during a break in the non-diegetic James Taylor music in some deeply uncalled-for, bizarrely generic, thrice-delayed studio product with 72 credited writers and directed by some guy named Joe Daveson whose last IMDB credit was a commercial for frozen pizza. Why? What is this about? Is he $11 trillion in debt? Did he make a deal with Satan that in exchange for the restoration of his career, he could never again star in any non-MCU movie that anyone would remember for reasons other than how bad it sucked?

Or — worst of all — am I forced to conclude that Robert Downey Jr. is, in fact, not all that great? Or, at the very least, that with Iron Man having settled his professional situation for all time, he has been revealed as a complacent dullard with no interest in the kind of interesting, enjoyable pre-MCU work he did in movies like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Zodiac? I would prefer not to consider this. Few big Hollywood stars ever have been easier to root for than Downey, whose extremely well-documented mid-career problems with drug addiction, mental illness, and compulsive-seeming self-destruction made his name for whole decades a punchline, a synonym for public disarray and squandered talent. His mid-aughts blossoming as a recurring and compelling screen presence, in parallel with what seems to have been the stabilization of his offscreen life, was one of the most welcome showbiz developments of that decade. Hey! A fuck-up who got his shit together! If Robert Downey Jr. can do it, so can anybody! This resonated with me personally, and I’ve never gotten a third as low in my own life as stumbling into the wrong person’s house in a drug-induced stupor and crashing on one of their beds, or wandering barefoot, alone, and high on coke through the streets of Culver City, California. (I have also, it needn’t be said, never reached a professional summit even a tenth as high in my own life as Downey’s performance in, like, Ally McBeal, at what turned out to be close to the nadir of his troubles.)

Is it possible that the sweep of his personal redemption arc has obscured a less exciting reality, which is that Robert Downey Jr. is a not-all-that-versatile actor who mostly is content delivering bland, uninteresting performances in stupid, unambitiously selected roles when outside the auspices of the Marvel industry? I don’t know. I don’t want to know. It would be a lot easier for me not to find out if he would quit making terrible movies.

Albert Burneko is a writer from Maryland. His work has appeared at Deadspin, Jezebel, HuffPost, and VICE.