My friend Stevie has a strict policy against seeing movies in which Robin Williams makes an appearance. This has largely served her well, but it's also caused her to miss a fair amount of legitimately good movies, from cult classics where Williams' role is brief enough not to be much of a factor (Shakes The Clown, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen) to early films like Popeye and The World According To Garp, where strong-willed directors like Robert Altman and George Roy Hill forced Williams to act instead of falling back on lame shtick and manic "improvisation." I'm also partial to Williams' refreshingly restrained turn as an Armistead Maupin-like gay author in the flawed but compelling The Night Listener, which my editor Keith likes to think of as creative penance for all those years of propagating swishy gay stereotypes in his stand-up act, and Williams' genuinely creepy turn as a murderer in Insomnia. The painfully insecure Williams always seems like the kind of guy who'll just die if everyone doesn't love him. Insomnia subversively suggests that Williams might kill for the same reason. Then there's Good Morning Vietnam and Moscow On The Hudson, both of which have good reputations, but that I'm reluctant to see due to their unacceptably high Robin Williams content. I remember liking Dead Poet's Society as an impressionable 12-year-old, but I strongly suspect it's aged about as well as a mayonnaise sandwich left out in the sun.
Not all of Williams' films suck: just the vast majority do, including today's My Year Of Flops entry, 1992's Toys, which posits Williams' elfin toy-pimp as the irresistible embodiment of childhood innocence and joy. The project had long been a labor of love for writer-director Barry Levinson, who originally intended to make it his directorial debut. Instead Levinson debuted with Diner en route to becoming one of Hollywood's most bankable directors. When he directed Toys, Levinson was riding a massive hot streak that included 1982's Diner, 1987's Tin Men and Good Morning Vietnam, 1988's Rain Man, 1990's Avalon, and 1991's Bugsy. He'd painstakingly built up the clout to make a film utterly unlike anything he'd done before, a dazzlingly original surrealistic fable that suggests Dr. Seuss by way of Dr. Strangelove. Toys is a fantastical universe unto itself, stitched together from Magritte, Disney, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, and random bits and pieces from Santa's workshop. If Levinson weren't so goddamned intent on cramming whimsy and joy down the audience's throat for two punishing hours, he might very well have succeeded in his very noble ambitions.
Whimsy is a tricky thing: too much can become oppressive. Toys sadistically tests audience's tolerance for whimsy/gag reflexes with its very first sequence, a nauseating Christmas pageant highlighted by Wendy Melvoin (of Revolution and Wendy and Lisa fame) crooning while apparently buried alive in red tinsel. The following sequence features Donald O'Connor conducting a heavy conversation about the future of his toy company while wearing a beanie with a propeller. The propeller–which has been hooked up to O'Connor's pacemaker–stops and its wearer dies, but not before offering leadership of his company to Michael Gambon, a deranged general whose main problem with the military is that it isn't bloodthirsty or aggressive enough. Gambon might just be the only soldier in U.S. history hankering unashamedly for another Vietnam. Gambon would surely have loved serving under Donald Rumsfeld.
O'Connor gives control of his beloved company to a blood-thirsty hawk who despises everything he represents as a way of teaching irresponsible son Robin Williams a lesson on the importance of growing up and accepting responsibilities. This suggests that Gambon and Jeffrey Tambor's cracked patriarch from Arrested Development nurse similarly eccentric philosophies regarding the right and wrong way to teach lessons to offspring. O'Connor's fantastical toy factory, which has been gloriously, imaginatively realized down to the tiniest detail, manufactures the kind of old-timey wind-up toys that turn up most often these days as ghoulish props in low-budget horror films. Gambon is understandably horrified by the pacifist nature of the company's output and sets about transforming O'Connor's magical kingdom into a covert war machine by brainwashing young people into becoming dead-eyed killing machines. Williams meanwhile bonds with pretty, honey-dripping Southerner Robin Wright over their shared love of canned farts.
Joan Cusack co-stars as Williams' sister, a spacey girl-woman whose mild retardation the film posits as a beatific state of grace. (SPOILER ALERT) Cusack is later revealed to be a robot designed to amuse Williams, which makes her insufferably precious character–she wears grown-up doll clothes! Isn't that just too, too much?–even more perplexing.
Toys is full of staggeringly odd sequences rendered even more bizarre by the passage of time, like a sequence in which an exceedingly young Jamie Foxx, a sinister henchman of Gambon's, leers unbecomingly at surveillance footage of Williams and Wright getting it on from a video camera implanted inside a wind-up toy robot. Then there's the Magritte-inspired New Wave music video Williams and Cusack create to distract Gambon's henchmen and a delirious sequence in which Gambon lip-synchs to opera while shooting a fly with a gun. That's not even mentioning the agreeably perverse incongruity of casting the British Gambon as an American–which is explained away in one of the film's most amusing scenes–and L.L. Cool J as Gambon's gung-ho son.
Gambon delivers an appropriately operatic performance, so forceful and compelling that it throws off the balance of the film. The unexpectedly sympathetic Gambon is a warrior without a war, a man out of time and place. He's King Lear. He's a poignant toy-factory Patton. He's Michael Gambon with the lid off and recalls President Bush's coterie of cold-blooded über-hawks even before he commandeers a violent video game during a reconnaissance mission at a local arcade and makes a special point of blowing up United Nations vehicles at great cost to his overall score.
Gambon is designed as a hiss-worthy villain, but I found myself rooting unashamedly for this living, breathing embodiment of the military-industrial complex. That's one of the film's central problems: it's an attack on war toys and violent video games and a sentimental valentine to old-fashioned non-violent toys, but it makes violence look awesome and pacifism seem like the exclusive domain of insufferable wusses like Williams and Cusack.
Levinson desperately wants to unleash the inner child in everyone, but my inner child is a sneering juvenile delinquent who thinks it's way cool to torture adorable woodland creatures and set nuns on fire, so it's probably smart for me to keep him on as short a leash as possible.
Toys builds to an epic battle between good and evil, war toys and wind-up pacifists and soldiers of fortune versus pixies for peace that's utterly anti-climactic. The film's enormous, elaborate sets are a masterpiece of whimsical production design, so it's painful to see them blown up and torn down so artlessly. Like Nothing But Trouble, the boorish Goofus to Toys' goody two shoes Gallant, Levinson's film illustrates how a movie can fully realize a talented writer-director's audacious, original, and wildly ambitious vision and still fail spectacularly.Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco