Some Like It Dull

Robin Williams's movies tend to fall into one of two categories: the comedian Robin and oh-so-earnest Robin. In the first mode, the peripatetic comedian essentially just adapts his stand-up routine to the cinematic role at hand so that what you get on-screen is a variation of Robin Williams in concert (his turn as Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam, for example). As serious Robin, the comedian plays it so straight, hoping you'll take him seriously as an Ahc-tor, that he appears completely limp and devoid of life (i.e., Awakenings).

Much has been written in praise of Williams at his shtickiest and most improvisational. Simply put, the man has no equal at what he does; he's the king of comedy-of-the-moment, the Sid Caesar of the Nineties. Unfortunately, there's no way to tell, in the context of a film, whether a gag was ad-libbed or the product of many hours of labored concentration on the part of a bevy of caffeine-fortified screenwriters. All jokes are created equal when they appear on the big screen. This often works to Williams's disadvantage, for although his material is usually good but not great, the quality that rockets Williams into another dimension of comic genius is the fact that he comes up with so much of it off the top of his head. The man thrives on danger, on the adrenaline rush he gets from working without a net. Appearing in a movie automatically diminishes his impact unless you convince yourself that they just turned the cameras on and let Williams wing it.

Unfortunately, Williams is in the same bind as many of his fellow standup-comedians-turned-thespians. Their Hollywood colleagues are often chronically insecure and don't appreciate the difficulty of being funny on celluloid. That is why occasionally brilliant comedic actors like Steve Martin or John Cleese get no respect come Oscar time (not that Academy Awards mean diddly, but as flawed and political an indicator as they are, they're still the best measure of peer approval). Michael Keaton garners raves for contrived morality plays like Clean and Sober or gothic yuppie melodrama like Pacific Heights but no mention for Night Shift or Beetlejuice. Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, George Carlin A all have succumbed to the desire to establish themselves as serious actors by taking on ill-advised roles and failing miserably in them. Look at poor Lily Tomlin A thank goodness there's a director as open-minded as Robert Altman to give her a second chance at drama in Short Cuts after her willingness to costar in that putrescent piece of Travolta flatulence titled Moment By Moment.

So Williams is stuck. If he goes for the jugular, pulls out all the stops (insert your cliche here), and does the out-of-control-wild-man-thang he does so well, he gets no respect. On the other hand, if he holds back, avoids lapsing into the schizophrenic, standup comedian with the rapid-fire delivery and the bottomless well of characters and impersonations, he becomes the cinematic equivalent of that broadcasting scourge known as dead air.

It's quite a dilemma. In this reviewer's opinion, if you have an Emmitt Smith you hand him the ball; if you have a Dan Marino (healthy), you let him throw; if you have a Jose Canseco you let him swing for the fences (but hire an unarmed chauffeur to drive him around). And if you have a Robin Williams, you let him riff.

Which is pretty much what director Christopher Columbus does in Mrs. Doubtfire, a so-so movie that boils down to an hour or so of Robin Williams in drag. He plays Daniel Hillard, an actor who is essentially Robin Williams only less successful. He's married to Miranda, a corporate career woman played by Sally Field with her customary cloying, humorless sincerity. Dan can't hold a job but the couple's three kids love him; she's tired of cleaning up after him and playing the heavy. Needless to say, they don't get along, and one day they don't get along so much so that she dumps him.

It's the classic Hollywood setup: she's the hard-hearted bitch, he's the lovable-but-irresponsible romantic. She gets custody of the kids; he can't live without them. His best shot at seeing the little buggers on a daily basis is to pass himself off as a British nanny.

So Dan transforms himself into a woman with the help of his swishy makeup-artist brother Harvey Fierstein (doing another variation on his tiresome just-one-of-the-girls-with-a-voice-like-a-foghorn-with-laryngitis routine. Fierstein's film and TV roles since Torch Song Triology have been rehashes of the same "Surprise A a guy with a gravelly voice like mine can be gay, too" part. It's time to move on, Harvey). Williams as a middle-age English matron looks a little like Glenn Close and for credibility falls somewhere between Tony Curtis's performance in Some Like It Hot and Dustin Hoffman's in Tootsie. Not for a minute do you believe he would fool his wife of fourteen years, even if she is Sally Field. But what the hell. It's a movie, after all. Suspension of disbelief and all that.

Whether you buy Mork as a woman is of little consequence. Writers Randi Mayem Singer and Leslie Dixon and director Chris Columbus (Home Alone) have done their primary job of setting Williams up in as many situations as possible to improvise. There's the inevitable men's room scene, the complaining about high heels scene, the peeing standing up scene, the scorched prosthetic boobs scene, the obligatory crotch-grab and overzealous male suitor -- all the drag movie staples. Williams even gets to vamp through an air guitar romp, using broom and vacuum cleaner as surrogate axes.

It's all so predictable A the contrived situation, the phony conflict, the warm fuzzies right where you expect them, the bogus resolution A but that's beside the point. If you like Robin Williams, you'll love Mrs. Doubtfire. And if you don't like Robin Williams, save the $6.50 and rent Tootsie.

 
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