Penny Lame

The release of Penny Marshall's latest film, Renaissance Man, featuring Danny DeVito and Marky Mark, raises several burning questions. Can Marshall, whose picture hits theaters barely two months after Ron Howard's The Paper and whose acting and directing career has eerily paralleled Howard's, outschmaltz her freckle-faced colleague's paper-thin tabloid opus? (Yes.) Can DeVito revive the pugnacious-but-lovable little guy role that ubiquitous Joe Pesci has beaten into submission? (Yes.) And can noted homophobe Marky Mark make it through his motion-picture acting debut without posing topless or rapping? (No and Sort of.)

The emergence of Richie Cunningham and Laverne De Fazio as mainstays of American filmmaking in the Nineties is a troubling development for cinema aficionados with a low tolerance for safe movies. Delete the cloyingly wholesome, formulaic, cliche-ridden elements from both directors' work and you are left with a bunch of fifteen-minute shorts. Maybe it has something to do with their shared small-screen heritage. After all, they were impressionable twentysomethings when they starred in their respective long-running, top-rated series. Both Happy Days and its spinoff, Laverne and Shirley, were bland, innocuous comedies that tapped the same soft spot in the American psyche as Norman Rockwell paintings and the Blondie comic strip -- our perception of ourselves as basic salt-of-the-earth types with a few colorful quirks that occasionally get us into temporary scrapes. Nearly every episode had a happy ending. Lite life lessons were learned along the way. Deep down even a Harley-riding greaser like the Fonz was a rank sentimentalist in search of warm fuzzies. He started out a rebel and evolved into a house pet.

With training like that, it's no surprise that Howard's and Marshall's films have a lot in common A upbeat endings, sugar-coated moralizing, corny characters, and hackneyed situations. Neither strays far from the mainstream. And both directors favor actors such as Michael Keaton, Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Robin Williams, and Danny DeVito, who have successfully brooked the transition from tube to silver screen.

To be fair, both directors have had their moments. Howard peaked in 1989 with Parenthood, which suffered most of his films' usual ailments but was powered by a combination of truth, subtle observation, and humor that kept it from bogging down in slush. Steve Martin's presence didn't hurt, either. But Howard followed that up with a melodramatic trifecta (Backdraft, Far and Away, and The Paper) that has eroded much of the critical goodwill Parenthood begat.

Marshall's work following 1988's delightful Big has been more encouraging, in spite of an increasing tendency toward mawkishness. Awakenings in 1990 was a by-the-numbers tearjerker anchored by competent but understated performances from Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, and 1992's A League of Their Own depended on clutch hitting by Tom Hanks and Geena Davis to knock the bathos out of the park.

Renaissance Man is strike three. DeVito is not without talent, but he is at his best at his most venal (War of the Roses) and venomous (Ruthless People). Here his portrayal of an unemployed advertising bigshot crackles with energy in the early going, reaching its wicked apogee when DeVito bares his fangs at an imperious bureaucrat in the unemployment office. But once he accepts a short-term job teaching a group of eight borderline washouts at an army post, the defiant snarl metamorphoses into a bemused, soporific grin, and the hokum begins in earnest. Say goodbye to any chance for trenchant social commentary and hello to sitcom silliness.

Ren Man's doubly derivative plot combines the shopworn good teacher/problem students motif of everything from To Sir With Love to Stand and Deliver with the naive-innocent-who-bucks-the-system-but-eventually-conforms-to-the-army-way angle that dates back to Abbott and Costello's 1940 hit Buck Privates, if not further. Think Stripes meets Welcome Back, Kotter. DeVito's character, pitchman Bill Rago, remains a civilian, but that's a minor technicality. Upon arrival at Fort Jackson he sets up housekeeping on the base, interacts with the troops daily, and learns to love the military. He might as well be in uniform.

Of course initially Rago doesn't want to be there and neither do the eight recruits he is supposed to tutor in "Comprehension." Every protagonist needs a conflict, or so they teach you in Screenwriting 101. This being a Penny Marshall project, teacher and students predictably overcome their age, cultural, racial, and economic differences, bond, learn from each other, and go on to live enriched lives. The adman acquires tolerance and a measure of redemption from his wide-eyed charges, enabling him to make peace with his estranged daughter. In return the borderline soldiers develop self-esteem and an in-depth familiarity with Shakespeare.

That's right, Shakespeare. Oh, sure, only one of the recruits has heard of him before, and then only because "that guy comes to Central Park every summer." But not to worry. Our hip educator breaks down the Bard into language the slow learners can understand, and before you can say farfetched they're performing a "Hamlet Rap" and reciting long stretches of Henry V to their grizzled drill sergeant. It's an absurd premise for a motion picture, even by Marshall's Jumpin' Jack Flash standards. Pity. It would have been perfect for an episode of The Fresh Prince.

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