Is Robert Downey Jr. the new Johnny Depp?

Dolittle is never funny, frequently embarrassing and a terrible showcase for a movie star.

While it’s probably true that movies coasting on the strength of movie star names alone are more or less a thing of the past, it’s certainly untrue that there are no more movie stars. Take the curious case of Robert Downey Jr., for example. Riding the goodwill of an a pretty solid comeback with the role of Tony Stark in the first Iron Man movie, Downey Jr. shifted rather rapidly from tabloid darling to bonafide movie star. But that was based almost entirely on that role. His non-Marvel work since then has been doled out rather sparingly.

Since the Marvel universe really got rolling in 2012, Downey Jr. has appeared in only two non-Marvel films: a small cameo in his Marvel buddy Jon Favreau’s genial-but-useless Chef and a never-was attempt at award gold with the anemic drama The Judge. (The Judge did decent business considering it is a dour melodrama from Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin in which a cancer-stricken Robert Duvall shits his pants on-screen and Dax Shepherd has a more or less straight dramatic role. Suffice it to say that it did not clean up on the awards circuit.)  Despite this, Robert Downey Jr. remains one of the highest paid and most beloved of all movie stars — a status that relies almost entirely on the fact that the Marvel Universe literally could not legally or financially go on without his character.

All of this is now over. Downey is more or less out of the Marvel movies (barring, I imagine, some contractually lax and financially profitable cameos) and has been almost single-handedly in control of his next move. It could have gone a number of ways. He could have tried directing, he could have done a prestige TV show, lost a bunch of weight for an Oscar role, hitched his wagon to a new franchise, waited for Guy Ritchie to finish ruining Disney movies in order to make another Sherlock Holmes movie… It seems, however, that Downey Jr. had his sights set on another throne: the one recently vacated by Johnny Depp, wherein a beloved actor goes ham whilst wearing a weird steampunk petticoat in a big-budget, family-friendly CGI extravaganza. 

On paper, it’s not that hard to see the appeal of Dolittle. It hits all quadrants: it has name recognition, it’s loud, you can fit all kinds of beloved voice-over performances from big names, it has boats, a haughty British villain — the whole thing. What Dolittle perhaps proves once and for all is that there is craft and art in even something as thunderous and eyeball-searing as a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I’m not sure what to call Dolittle if there isn’t. Long-delayed and plagued with production woes (including much publicized reshoots), Dolittle is proof that throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks may be a viable solution in some dramatic situations. Unfortunately, you may very well have to spend twice as much time cleaning up all the shit you threw from the foot of the wall.

John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) has a gift: he can speak to the animals. Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) has recognized this gift by awarding him a large sanctuary in the country from which to run his practice. Unfortunately, Dolittle has been a despondent hermit ever since the death of his wife, spending all of his time playing chess with anxiety-ridden gorilla Chee-Chee (voiced by Rami Malek) and a similarly quirky coterie of animals.

When the Queen ingests a very rare poison and falls gravely ill, she sends her prepubescent assistant (Carmel Lanadio) to fetch Dolittle. Despite the protestations of her snide and scurrilous personal physician Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen), who thinks the Queen is at death’s door, Dolittle is certain that he can cure her with a strange and magical fruit. So he and his menagerie of one-liner-delivering animals set off on a sea-faring adventure.

Downey’s Dolittle is somewhat styled on Jack Sparrow. He’s more or less traded the over-it, sardonic persona that has become his stock in trade for a more animated, tic-heavy eccentric, constantly hemming and hawing as he interacts with the zoo’s worth of snappy CGI beasties. Alas, it doesn’t seem like Stephen Gaghan (who directed Syriana, of all things, so of course he’s a natural fit for a $175-million family film) is as concerned with the specifics of Downey’s performance as much as he is with packing the frame with CGI concoctions and one-liners. Case in point: all of Robert Downey Jr.’s lines were noticeably re-recorded and synced in post, which I imagine is largely because his accent (which sounds like Billy Connolly by way of Ray Davies’ annoying mid-’70s calypso lilt) was a work in progress during the shoot. 

Stranger still, Downey’s face is often obscured considering he’s one of the biggest stars in the world in a costly blockbuster whose title is the name of his character. He’s often turned around or slightly out-of-frame or even downright blocked by one of the creatures… but wouldn’t you know it, he’s still cracking jokes. Even if we didn’t know that Dolittle was a rough shoot, even if someone hadn’t gone on Reddit to outline just what a disaster the production was, it would be obvious from the end product that this movie was thrown into production with perhaps 20 per cent of the jokes ready to go. So much of it depends on elements that have to be created in post-production that everything they shot was like a blueprint; while that’s true of many movies made these days, most of them aren’t released with the blueprint still intact.

All of this might be excusable if the movie were funny but, alas, Dolittle is more into the concept of comedy than into actual comedy. On the bright side, the film does very little pop-culture referencing for a movie of its ilk. Its humour is a little more timeless than the ostrich voiced by Kumail Nanjiani boogying down to “Gangnam Style,” which is a blessing. But just because the jokes don’t make me want to claw my eyes out doesn’t make them funny, per se. Most of them are insanely generic jokes that almost feel like placeholders for more elaborate ones. To top it all off, most of those are clearly the work of ADR tinkering, since they either come from CGI critters or from characters who are off-screen, yelling zany one-liners over CGI footage of a giraffe and a fox crashing through a window.

Here’s one thing you can say about Dolittle: it’s energetic. Every inch of every frame is packed with stuff, be it one of Dolittle’s dozen companions or some of the more elaborate sets that pop up once they cross paths with a fearless pirate played by Antonio Banderas. It’s never funny and frequently embarrassing but, at the very least, it’s not slow and dull. Granted, it’s a little bit like how being kept up by a neighbour sawing concrete at two in the morning couldn’t be called boring but the fact remains that the film maintains consciousness throughout its chaotic 100ish minutes of runtime.

Frankly, it doesn’t say much about Dolittle that little kids might be able to sit through it. It does say a lot about Robert Downey Jr. that this ostensible ego trip of a vehicle is such a terrible showcase of him and everything else. Like both of the big January releases I’ve seen this year, it’s a long-delayed, desperately patched-together mess that shows in no uncertain terms exactly what it looks like when expectations aren’t met but a film has to be released.

Dolittle is spattered with elbow grease and flop sweat, but it clearly isn’t enough. The film feels like something from 10 or 15 years ago, when movies like this were the sort of necessary burden for anyone who wanted to maintain their status as a bonafide star. But it’s also stuck in a different dimension in which this kind of try-hard desperation worked. ■

Dolittle opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Jan. 17. Watch the trailer here: