Sunday, May 31, 2015

Film Review: Mrs. Doubtfire

"Mrs. Doubtfire"  *** (out of ****)

Robin Williams engages in comedy hi-jinks as a recently divorced father who comes up with a scheme in order to see his three children every day in "Mrs. Doubtfire" (1993).

After the sad news of the death of Robin Williams last year, back in August, so many people turned to many of his comedies, as a reminder of Mr. Williams' comedy talent, but, this early 90s comedy, seems to hold a special place in many people's heart. It wasn't until recently I had the opportunity to re-watch this comedy and appreciate the laughs Mr. Williams left behind for audiences.

Upon its initial release in theaters, "Mrs. Doubtfire" grossed more than $200 million dollars in the U.S. alone and more than $400 million world-wide. Although the movie doesn't work up to the levels of cinematic art, audiences and some movie critics (sheep) were able to dole praise out to Mr. Williams and offer the final verdict that it is Mr. Williams and his comedy star power, that makes "Mrs. Doubtfire" worth watching. In her original review in the New York Times, movie critic Janet Maslin wrote "Mr. Williams remains this film's main and only real attraction."

Who else but Robin Williams could have played this role? Think of the comedy actors of the time, who could match Mr. Williams almost maniac level of high energy? Who could match his vocal impressions? Or his ability for physical comedy? You may find someone who possessed one or two of these attributes but not all three. Phil Hartman, for example, was great at impressions but physical comedy was not his strong suite. Billy Crystal is funny and has a sharp wit but he wasn't as "fast" as Mr. Williams.

Although the source material was a British novel, entitled "Madame Doubtfire" written by Anne Fine, published in 1987, it seems like a perfect vehicle for Mr. Williams, as if it was written specifically with him in mind.

There are moments in "Mrs. Doubtfire" you suspect Mr. Williams was given carte blanche. The movie tries to accommodate Mr. Williams comedy strong suites. As Daniel, Mr. Williams plays a voice-over actor. In the first scene of the movie we see Daniel playing the voice of cartoon characters for a television show. First, this makes the audience think of the Disney animated movie "Aladdin" (1992), for which Williams also did voice-over work as the Genie character. Secondly, what this accomplishes, is it gives Mr. Williams the chance to do vocal impressions. There is a montage in "Mrs. Doubtfire" where Daniel is at an employment agency looking for a job. He tries to demonstrate his ability for voices doing impressions of Ronald Reagan, The Marx Brothers and Humphrey Bogart among others. It is a montage that has found itself in other comedies Mr. Williams has starred in such as "Father's Day" (1997), which I like more than audiences give credit for, and even "Aladdin", which offered him great creative freedom.

While one can still offer these praises for Mr. Williams, "Mrs. Doubtfire" is still something of a mixed-bag. Did I laugh watching this movie? Yes. I certainly did. I would say, for me, there were about three or four big laughs and a few chuckles. Does the movie try to add sentimentality and attempt to make some type of commentary on divorce? Yes but rather clumsily. The approach is un-even. While the comedy aspects fare better than the sentimental scenes, the comedy does have that sit-com vibe to it. I could, rather plausibly, see everything that happens in this movie as season one of a television show.

And finally, for as good as Mr. Williams may be in this movie, does anyone else really stand out? Yes some can argue Mara Wilson, who plays the youngest daughter Natalie is very cute. She was also in the remake of "Miracle on 34th Street" (1994). Ladies might say Pierce Brosnan as Stu, a new love interest for Miranda (Sally Field), the ex-wife of Daniel (Williams), is a nice piece of eye candy but in the end what does it matter? When we think of "Mrs. Doubtfire" even 22 years later, the first thing that jumps into our mind is Robin Williams. That is kind of what hurts "Mrs. Doubtfire" from being a great comedy. It is little more than a star vehicle for Williams. Imagine what would have happened if detail was given to the other characters, at least the Miranda character. You could have had another "Tootsie" (1982), a comedy which has become as revered as "Mrs. Doubtfire" and has established in a place in the mainstream as an important American comedy. That movie scored 10 Academy Award nominations including best picture.

The basic premise of the plot is Daniel and Miranda Hillard divorce after Miranda says Daniel is an adult child. He has not grown up which always makes Miranda "the bad guy" in the eyes of her children. Daniel, Miranda feels, does not share in parental responsibility and after 14 years of marriage she wants out. Daniel however cannot accept this. Not because he loves Miranda, the movie actually doesn't become a comedy about Daniel wanting to win back his wife, but Daniel cannot fathom the idea of spending time away from his children. That is the most difficult part of the divorce.

So, when Miranda, a working mom, places an ad for a caretaker, for her children, Daniel sees this as his opportunity to disguise himself as a elderly English nanny named Mrs. Doubtfire and apply for the job. With the help of his brother, Frank (Harvey Fierstein), a make-up artist, Daniel will now be able to spend time with his children, even if the children are not aware of it.

Like "Toostie", "Mrs. Doubtfire" shows Daniel becoming a better father and a better man by being a woman. He learns to take on responsibility, hold a job, create a stable home for his children, he learns to cook and clean and discipline his children. He learns to find the balance between having fun with his children and knowing when to be "the parent", the person that must enforce rules like time to do your homework. And that seems to be one of the main points of the movie. Seeing Daniel's maturity as a character. The lessons he learns as "Mrs. Doubtfire" and a final commentary on divorce and how children should never feel they were to blame. The final commentary on children's place in divorce seemed a bit too strong and goes on too long. It seems too "weepy" and tries to tie everything into a nice bow. It comes across too forced.

"Mrs. Doubtfire" in the end I feel has more scenes that work then don't, but it is a close race. This isn't a great movie in my opinion, it is a nice vehicle for Robin Williams, but that doesn't mean this is a classic comedy. Quite frankly I am surprised as how well the movie seems to have aged. Back in 1993, when I first saw this movie, I would not have thought the movie would have been remembered 22 years later. Children who grew up with this movie seem to really enjoy it, so I can't argue that but "Mrs. Doubtfire" is a good movie, a harmless diversion worth some laughs, but attempts to call it more than that I feel are over playing their hand and allowing their own sentimentality towards the movie to interfere with their judgement.