Robert Downey Jr. is in the midst of promoting the release of his long-time passion project Dolittle. The $175 million blockbuster adaptation of the classic children’s stories is something that RDJ has wanted to make for many years now. Produced by his wife Susan of Team Downey Productions and distributed by Universal a mere month after their last CGI animal-focused drama Cats, the air of failure seemed to loom heavily overhead from the get-go. First, there was the mere concept of the movie: A nine-figure effects-laden family blockbuster based on a series of children’s stories that most kids these days haven’t read? Then there were the production delays, reshoots, and endless moving of the release date, followed by rumors of on-set tension between the star and the film’s director, Stephen Gaghan. If the January ‘dump month’ release wasn’t enough to signal how little hope Universal had in this endeavor, the reviews were certainly proof of their hesitation. Our own Steven called it ‘an abominable black hole of creativity and talent that should never have been made.’ Screen Daily described it as ‘a joyless slog trying to pretend it’s a hip, magical masterpiece.’ Richard Roeper lamented the film as ‘the first serious contender for Wasted Opportunity of the Decade.’ As of the writing of this post, Dolittle has made about $29 million domestically and just under $64 million worldwide, making it an unmitigated commercial flop. It turns out that nobody really cared about seeing Tony Stark talk to the animals, even if it was his career-long dream.
Basically everything about Dolittle has puzzled me since it was announced. Who was this movie for? What 2020 audience wanted to rush out in the middle of January to see this? Why do all these Dolittle adaptations focus so heavily on anal activity with animals? Mostly, I spent a lot of time asking questions about Robert Downey Jr. and what he wanted out of this. When you’re one of the biggest movie stars on the planet and are widely credited with helping to birth the single-biggest movie franchise of all time, there are certain expectations placed upon your shoulders as well as a kind of industry-wide trust and freedom afforded to very few actors working today. As I’ve mentioned before, I cannot get over the reality of an actor who has the ability to do whatever the hell he wants and chooses to make this. Apparently, a whole lot of viewers can’t get over that.
Scott Mendelson over on Forbes wrote that the box office numbers for Dolittle were just further proof that RDJ’s A-List pull matters little outside of him playing Iron Man. This is a conundrum a lot of MCU players have faced as they try to go solo and find their efforts to pull in audiences based on the strength of their name alone futile. Just ask Chris Hemsworth or that time Scarlett Johansson tried to make The Ghost in the Shell happen. The name of the game for the past decade has been IP over A-List and very few Hollywood figures are exceptions to that rule, with even fewer of them able to do so for films with the kind of gargantuan budgets now commonplace for the average blockbuster.
One would have thought that RDJ would be that exception, but he’s never really had an opportunity to prove his stuff in the decade since he became Iron Man. His filmography is very limited outside of the MCU and the only proof we had that he could carry his own big movie came with the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies, but even they had the benefit of a familiar IP at a time when it had prime social cache. Dolittle was meant to be the kickstart of a new age of RDJ, the beginning of his undisputed era as a megastar without the structural backing of Marvel. His new introduction to the world was as a family movie man, not unlike how Dwayne Johnson pivoted to kids movies once he established himself as an action man (a model that seems commonplace for wrestlers turned actors, but I digress.) Marvel may have been the kings of PG-13 but they were still films intended for the widest and most profitable audiences possible, which means that they had to be accessible to children. RDJ has young kids so it’s not hard to see why he’d want to lean further into this angle of his career. The question comes with whether or not this was a particular version of Downey that kids craved. They like Iron Man but that’s very different from liking the actor playing him.
For a superbly talented, Oscar-nominated actor who got his start in Brat Pack comedies and could balance Shakespeare with lounge singing, RDJ has mostly defined himself in the MCU days by his personality rather than his craft. He’s not Tony Stark in real life but the persona he’s molded for public consumption is very close to that character, which leads to an assumption that his range begins and ends with him ‘playing himself’. Of course, doing that has made him rich and famous and revived his career after years of addiction and legal troubles that saw him become an industry-wide joke. Why would he want to give that up?
I know the RDJ I want. I want the one from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang who so perfectly embodied the black comedy of Shane Black’s noir homage, equal parts witty and utterly idiotic. I want the RDJ of Zodiac, stretching his muscles in an auteur’s thriller in a way that feels cut from a familiar cloth but still refreshing and gripping to watch. I want the Robert Downey Jr. who did more than just be Robert Downey Jr., the one who seemed excited to take risks and be a proud supporting player. If ever any blockbuster king could benefit from taking it down a few notches, it’s him.
RDJ has talked openly about his lack of enthusiasm for working on smaller, indie projects now that he’s got more money than God. He says he doesn’t want to spend his time on tiny movies with no prospects simply because they’re apparently more worthy than whatever blockbuster cameo he’s making that month. I obviously disagree with that stance and am surprised he’s so dead set on this mentality given that his best work is in those films that few people saw but were artistically daring and often deeply strange. He has the freedom to carve out the career he wants for himself, and kudos to him. But again — why this? And why now? Is this what he wants to commit to for the long-term? Let’s not forget that his other long-time in-development passion project is an adaptation of Pinocchio.
Hollywood flops can often be deeply satisfying (hey, I’ll never shut up about Cats) but Dolittle proves frustrating because of the sheer wasted potential from its star and Svengali. RDJ has all that money, all that clout, and all that audience goodwill, yet he seems to have no idea how to use it for the greater good or even for his own creative satisfaction. Frankly, he seems like he’s slumming it, and that’s what stings the most. Even he seems aware of that, if his obvious boredom with his own current press tour is any indication. What does he want and who does he want it for? Not even Tony Stark has the answer to that.
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