As I wrote in the MYOF book-exclusive Case File for W, there comes a moment in every cinephile’s intellectual and creative development when he or she comes to realize that Oliver Stone is full of shit; similarly, there comes a moment in every comedy fan’s intellectual and creative development when he or she comes to realize that Robin Williams is not funny. For many, this is a jarring, even shocking revelation. The hirsute yuksmith is supposed to be funny. To some of his fans, he’s less a funnyman than comedy incarnate, a madman whose brain simply cannot stop creating comedy. He’s a machine. He cannot help himself. Simply wind him up and let him go. In Marc Maron’s resonant turn of phrase, he’s less a stand-up comic with an act than a delivery system. Simply insert a subject into the machine and watch it whirr busily into motion.
Kids love Williams because they like shiny, busy, bright, and furry things that never stop moving. As a child, I was suitably impressed by the manic busyness of Williams’ stand-up and acting performances, before I came to realize that Williams never stopped talking because he never had anything to say. The manic showiness of his delivery couldn’t quite mask the emptiness of material that was, if the stories are to be believed, occasionally purloined from less-famous comics anyway. Williams’ brain seems to have stopped paying attention around the time he kicked cocaine, so Williams’ gay guy and hip-hopper are frozen forever in 1983. Perhaps Williams will someday go back and update them, but for now they’re doomed to exist forever in a sad, tasteless time warp.
Now that I’m beating Williams’ head against a rock with words, I should probably concede that I like him. He’s supposed to be a super-nice guy. He’s notorious for stealing jokes, but he’s also famous for allegedly writing checks to people whose material he stole and for helping fuel the ’80s stand-up comedy club boom by going to just about every new club and taking a picture with the owners to illustrate what big shots they were. Seriously. Go to a comedy club and chances are good you’ll see a picture of the owners with Williams.
I like Williams as a dramatic actor for the same reasons I dislike him as a stand-up comic. In films like World’s Greatest Dad, Insomnia, The World According To Garp, and The Night Listener, he radiates vulnerability bordering on desperation. The need not just for approval but for love and adoration that makes Williams exhausting as a comic can be touching in a dramatic context. There is no surer recipe for an insufferable, over-the-top headache of a comedy than a director simply letting Williams do Williams. Williams is most effective in movies that channel his all-consuming need for attention to their own ends.
In all of the above films, Williams plays writers of varying degrees of success. He also plays a writer opposite Billy Crystal in 1997’s Fathers’ Day, and there are moments throughout Williams’ performance when it appears that the film is secretly a touching drama about a flawed, despondent failed writer’s redemption buried deep inside a dispiriting comedy. Never is this more apparent than during a promising scene where Williams earnestly attempts to try to find some common ground with Charlie Hofheimer, a teenage runaway who may or may not be his son.
This is Williams’ first real opportunity to behave like a father, and he wants to make the most of it. So how does this scene rife with dramatic possibilities play out? With Hofheimer climactically tossing a pot of scalding hot coffee onto Williams’ crotch so that he’s forced to walk around for several scenes like someone who has had a pot of scalding hot coffee dumped onto his crotch. There were a million different ways the filmmakers could have gone; they went with the dick joke. Would you really expect anything more from screenwriting team Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (City Slickers, Parenthood) and director Ivan Reitman? The only thing funny about Babaloo Mandel is his name. Reitman without Bill Murray is like Superman at a Kryptonite convention: His powers are useless and the results (My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Evolution, Legal Eagles) often dire.
Reitman’s most impressive quality is his ability to get Bill Murray to say yes to projects. Otherwise, he’s a journeyman at best, and Fathers’ Day suffers from a fatal lack of personality behind the scenes. Like far too many comedies of the ’80s and ’90s, Fathers’ Day was adapted from the work of Francis Veber, a prolific and evil French writer-director famous for the incredibly commercial, gimmicky, high-profile nature of his comedies. In other words, Veber made French comedies that felt like hacky American comedies that were then turned into genuine hacky American remakes like Three Fugitives, The Man With One Red Shoe, and Pure Luck. So a toxic cultural cross-communication is at play: Veber takes the worst of our comic film culture, then sells it back to us in mutated forms.
Veber conceits don’t come much more contrived than the one that limply powers Fathers’ Day. The film’s premise first finds Natassja Kinski telling cynical lawyer Billy Crystal that he is the father of Hofheimer. Crystal is drinking a martini when he receives this unwelcome news. If you watch the scene closely, you can see Crystal desperately fighting the urge to do what comes naturally. He sips slowly and discreetly before piping up, “My son?” It takes every bit of strength in his being to resist the spit take right there at his lips. The universe is verily begging him to snort spit in comic disbelief, yet he cruelly denies it.
That’s Crystal’s performance in a nutshell: He inexplicably eschews the big, look-at-me-I’m-upstaging-Robin Williams gestures you’d expect, but he doesn’t offer anything in their place. There are no spit takes, but there’s also never any real sense of a character either; it’s one of those films where a character’s expensive suit and fancy briefcase do all the actor’s work for him.
Williams exerts slightly more effort, in the sense that he overacts wildly and mugs up a storm after Kinski informs him that he has a son. In this clip, Williams, in a flurry of excitement over meeting the son that will invest his otherwise wasted life with meaning and substance, tries out wildly different personas in an apparent attempt to figure out which one will most appeal to a son about whom he knows nothing. From a storytelling point of view, this makes no sense. Why would Williams adopt entirely different outfits to accompany his new, instantly discarded personas? Then again, Williams the actor clearly sees life as a big dress rehearsal, and the scene gives audiences what studios imagine they want: Robin Williams performing the same caricatures of dusty old stereotypes he’s been performing in some form or another for decades. At this point, those aren’t characters so much as they’re a nervous tic. It’s not so much that Williams still thinks someone, anyone, is amused by the boombox hip-hop guy; it’s just that he can’t stop doing it. It’s compulsive, a creative sickness.
In Man Of The Year, a previous Case File, Williams’ manic antics reduced everyone around him to stitches. In its sole stab at realism, Fathers’ Day has everyone treat Williams they way they would when confronted by a yammering, borderline-incoherent manchild discharging verbiage and antics at a rapid clip: with a combination of pity, confusion, and concern. To their credit, nobody in Fathers’ Day appears to find Williams amusing, because he’s not.
Hofheimer, it turns out, has absconded with a great deal of drug dealer Jared Harris’ money so he can lavish his girlfriend with expensive jewelry, hoping that at some point she will stop fucking the lead singer of Sugar Ray and return to him. Mark McGrath makes a staggeringly unimpressive screen debut playing himself as a douchebag happy to steal some teenager’s slutty underage girlfriend.
What little amusement I derived from Fathers’ Day was rooted almost exclusively in fuzzy nostalgia for the mid-’90s, particularly the positing of Sugar Ray as the exemplar of edginess. I suspect that Fathers’ Day really wanted to make Hofheimer a punk or a hippie, those two wonderfully cheap and easy caricatures, but inexplicably made him a fan of a band that was never remotely edgy, let alone a terrifying gateway into a shadowy subculture decent Americans knew well enough to stay far away from if they valued their lives and safety.
For product generated by previously commercially dependable organisms like Reitman, Mandel, Ganz, and Veber, Fathers’ Day is a shockingly ineffective piece of comic craftsmanship. At one point Crystal implores Williams to use his ability to cry on cue to manipulate a woman at a harbor. But when Williams attempts to use sense memory, he taps into a funeral that made him laugh giddily as well as cry. Consequently, Crystal must appear to be close dancing madly in a circle with Williams in a circle to keep the woman at the dock from seeing that he’s inexplicably laughing instead of crying. That’s a lot of set-up for a gag that deflates instantly and lasts less than a minute.
Fathers’ Day finds its characters boring and unlikable, so why should audiences feel differently? Hofheimer spends the entire film running away, and Williams and Crystal must constantly attend to the demands of an overstuffed screenplay with no room for subtlety, space, or characterization. What’s more, Fathers’ Day is singularly uninterested in fatherhood. Its conception of fatherly concern entails Williams and Crystal making Hofheimer’s would-be girlfriend break up with him because, in her own indelible words, “Well, Scotty. You’re boring. I liked you for a while. Now I can’t stand looking at you. Even your voice makes me sick.” This is the woman he has spent the entire film chasing. It’s a good thing she’s so transparently evil that even the likes of Williams and Crystal can see through her.
I am now going to show this clip of Mel Gibson appearing in the film as a piercer for no discernible reason.
Fathers’ Day never takes anyone’s emotions seriously. In the hands of a different set of writers and directors, it could have been a funny, dramatic meditation on the passage of time, family, responsibility, identity, and mortality. What does it mean to be a father of someone already so grown? What do you owe him? What have you missed? Fathers’ Day isn’t any more interested in those questions than it is in Williams’ suicidal depression as anything beyond a tasteless plot point.
The film’s emotional dishonesty carries over to a preposterous happy ending where Hofheimer separately tells Crystal and Williams that they’re each his father despite knowing that his real dad is Bruce Greenwood, Kinski’s long-suffering husband and a gifted actor who spends much of the film upside down in a Porta-Potty. That’s super-embarrassing. What gifted actor wants Fathers’ Day on his résumé? The Porta-Potty thing isn’t too conducive to human dignity either.
Fathers’ Day was ballyhooed as a comic answer to Heat, the iconic teaming of two legends who had never worked together before. Everything about Fathers’ Day screamed “money”: the giant stars, the subject, the screenwriters, the director, even producer Joel Silver, who generally shepherded much louder movies like Lethal Weapon. Yet audiences could see through it all the same. Fathers’ Day reveals the sad creative fate of some projects born solely out of cynical commercial calculation: In attempting to appeal to everyone, it ends up appealing to no one.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure
Next up in Robin Williams month: Death To Smoochy