Back to the Fox Collection selection. But don’t worry – there will be future digressions. I will make it so.
After the dynamic wunderkind known as Robin Williams set the TV scene on fire in the late 70s with Mork and Mindy, it was only natural that make the move to the big screen and perform the same magic. But his cinematic offerings turned out to be far more uneven, the primary reason being that he often dismissed his role in favor of the same antics that made him a household name. Sure we got gems like Popeye and Moscow on the Hudson, but we also got stinkers like The Survivors, Club Paradise and The Best of Times. In short, if the director couldn’t force him to stay in character, he almost never did.
And then filmmakers got smart. Starting in 1987 with Good Morning Vietnam, they figured out that if they deliberately chose a role that was already a Robin Williams-type character, he could go to town, chewing al the scenery he wanted and still stay in character. Vietnam’s Adrian Cronauer was a motor-mouthed DJ who did skits and scenes and funny voices. Voila! The film was a critical and box-office hit, even netting Willams an Oscar nod for Best Actor. Not bad for someone pretty much playing himself.
The tactic continued with Dead Poet’s Society, The Fisher King, Hook, Aladdin and then Mrs. Doubtfire, in which he plays the titular character’s alter ego, a man recently fired from his job as cartoon voice. Of course, later in the film he dons the dress and wig and becomes a dowdy old woman who can be fresh-mouthed when the situation dictates, so now we have the best of both world – Robin Williams as himself and contained character. And under the processed yet often reign-releasing directorship of Chris Columbus, he excels in both capacities. For this reason, Doubtfire may very well be the definitive Robin Williams role. After a decade and-a-half of ups and downs, experimenting, succeeding, bombing and doing everything in between, he finally has a great comfort level on screen – and he can do whatever is necessary to keep ya laughing for the price of yer ticket.
But for all his unbridled comic energy, I discovered that the reason Williams works so well on film has nothing to do with jokes. There’s a moment near the beginning of Doubtfire in which Williams’ daughter asks him if he’ll ever leave her the way he did mommy, and he looks at her square in the eye and says, “Never. I’ll never leave you. You’re my children, and I love you.”
Not the best line in the world, but it doesn’t matter: when Williams says it, you friggin believe it. He has an absolute sincerity in his performance that you just can’t teach – it’s the stuff that movie stars are made of – and producers will pay top dollar for it in Hollywood. You just want to go up and break through to the screen and give the man a hug. From that moment on, there’s not a single soul in the audience who doesn’t want this guy to be with his kids.
But if course, given that this is pretty much Hollywood product, we must get the usual the usual plot machinations to stymie his efforts to do so. After Daniel (Williams) and Miranda Hillard (Sally Field) talk divorce (more her idea than his), they go to court; she wins custody, and he gets mere visitation visits only conditionally, pending his proof of employment and paternal fitness (I’ll bet Ted Kramer wished he got that deal in Kramer Vs. Kramer.) This of course sets up two things: his requirement to dress up as the nanny Field eventually hires to watch the kids after school, and an adversary in the form of the court inspector, who certainly can’t find out that her charge is a drag queen. But he clears that hurdle, and Doubtfire, not surprisingly, turns out to be a great caretaker. And Daniel even lands a decent job – all we have to do now is wait until the probationary period is up, right?
Nope. Miranda fancies a British hunk in the form of Pierce Brosnan, stirring Daniel’s (Doubtfire’s) envy. And Daniel gets the chance to be a daytime children’s show host, with his “interview” at the same restaurant he’s supposed to dine with his family… as Doubtfire! This leads to the inevitable unmasking scene – in Tootsie it was done as broad farce and then poignant tragedy, all on a live soap opera. Here, it comes off as a bit awkward and maudlin, in the aftermath of a near-choking incident, with Doubtfire more than a bit tipsy (OK, drunk). After Field realizes hiw good he was with the kids, dress or no, she finally, finally, finally agrees to let him watch the kids after school. And Doubtfire closes with a PSA about divorce as an often-inevitable part of life.
Now, don’t me wrong, Doubtfire has its moments, and most of them involve Williams with the kids, half acting, half ad-libbing, but always connecting. It’s clear they had chemistry both on and off the set. And then there are a few charming moments with Doubtfire as the TV show host, yukking it up with a puppet monkey, and how he was slighted in the casting of Planet of the Apes in favor of Roddy MacDowell. But of the film is an oh-so-carefully crafted Hollywood Plot, replete with just enough conflucts and twists to keep the story, like a shark, moving forward. We even get the requisite gay man (Harvey Firestein), Williams’ brother, appointed to create Doubtfire’s dress and makeup. He’s already done the British old lady voice on the phone, so why do they go through an old Russian woman and Barbra Streisand? So Williams can do his accents and the three can sing a Streisand song, that’s why.
And then there’s the Sally Field, playing the thankless role of the wife who wants a divorce. The film has to walk on eggshells with her – she has to be the heavy, the one who’s denying custody, she can’t be too touch-feely. On the other hand, she can’t be a monster, either; we’d wonder how they ever got together in the first place, and she has to be nice enough so her “turn” at the end is credible. Ultimately, the writers dig themselves into a hole, and the character is a confused non-entity. In the real world, she’d gladly have her ex watch the kids (why wouldn’t she, contrived “party scene” notwithstanding?), but that would make the film a heck of a lot shorter.
Doubtfire has become a “favorite film” in the years since its release, and it probably deserves that distinction. Like Chris Columbus’ previous film, Home Alone, the film has a coziness about it, fit for holiday gatherings where no one is paying much attention to it; they just know it verbatim from repeated viewings. But if you look beyond the gloss and in between Williams’ routines, you’ll find that the emperor has no clothes, or at least vey few.
For its pop appeal, and Williams’ comedy, it gets….