What is the first thing you think of when you hear the name Robert Downey Jr.?
Drugs? Iron Man? Maybe a bit of both come to mind but, considering the body of work the man has put out during hiscareer as a whole, Downey's acting is starting to pull ahead and overshadow his personal problems.
The guy has had one heck of a comeback since his last arrest and subsequent firing from Ally McBeal in 2000. From Ally's love interest (enough, to be fair, to drive any mere mortal to distraction) to Iron Man, in theatres this week, is quite a trajectory. Despite his well-publicized drug-related arrests, his IMDB resume indicates he has worked steadily since his 1985 debut on Saturday Night Live. His career includes an Oscar nomination for playing Charlie Chaplin and outings with directors such as Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers) and Robert Altman (Short Cuts). Obviously, this is an actor who transcends his hang-ups. His appeal lately has become more personal, applying, as he does, certain parts of Robert Downey Jr. to roles in offbeat movies. This is most apparent in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, A Scanner Darkly and Zodiac.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has Downey playing a thief turned actor "investigating" a series of LA murders to develop his detective character in a movie. Appropriately for the film-noir tone, he narrates his own story, keeping the audience up to speed---not so much with the plot but with how Harry, his character, views the plot. Appropriate for Downey, Harry operates with an ironic resoluteness---he's more interested in getting the girl than with solving the crime. Downey is perfect for the role since he projects enough sincerity to be engaging but enough detachment to beinteresting.
A Scanner Darkly stars Keanu Reeves as an undercover cop living in druggie-squalor with Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson and, of course, Downey. The role of Substance-D addict Barris is a satirical choice given Downey's history, but it is Barris' duplicitous nature that makes him most intriguing. There is a sense of detachment but it's Barris from the other characters, not from the story itself. He is a drug addict willing to sell out his "friends," underlining the theme of schizophrenically divided loyalties that propels the film.
Zodiac has Downey playing Paul Avery, the dandyish foil to the nerdy Robert Graysmith played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Avery and Graysmith are both dogged and determined in their personal quests to figure out the Zodiac killings, but Downey's Avery is more flamboyant and aggrandizing, which gives more smack to his fall from grace asa reporter.
After watching Downey's hard-bitten reporter become more and more involved in the investigation, his nutty application to the US Justice Department to lead a Zodiac taskforce is both hilarious and embarrassing. It's sad to think that his time as a reporter is now done because we don't want to see him go. Film critic Manohla Dargis wrote in the New York Timesof Zodiac and Downey: "Mr. Downey fills the screen with life that, by its very nature, is a rebuke to the death drive embodied by the Zodiac killer. Rarely has a film with so much blood on its hands seemed so insistently alive."
Look for Downey this summer in Tropic Thunder, the war-movie send-up by Ben Stiller, where he plays, um, a white character-actor playing an African American army sergeant. Tropic Thunder is indicative of how far Downey has come. It is a satire of self-involved actors and the Downey ironic vitality is being used to skewer successful actors like him. Perhaps realizing that his past drug problems will never escape him, Downey gives winking nods to them in some of the film roles he chooses---Tony Stark/Iron Man eventually descends into alcoholism in the comic books. But the anticipation of Iron Man is not to see Downey re-hash his problems, it is to see Downey's cool quality fill a six-foot-six-inch iron suit and kick some ass.