Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Robin Williams sells the hell out of an unlikable character

Illustration for article titled Robin Williams sells the hell out of an unlikable character

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: We honor the life and career of Robin Williams by looking back on some of the late actor’s finest performances.


Cadillac Man (1990)

Robin Williams often played characters who were smarter than the room and suffered for it—typically at the hands of stuffed shirts who didn’t appreciate his wit, forcing him to condense it into quick asides delivered under his breath. But rare was the film that took Williams’ natural talent for spinning crap and made it a fatal flaw, rather than a virtue being suppressed. Cadillac Man was such a movie, capturing Williams at his midpoint between the noble jesters he played in Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society and the crinkly-eyed family man he would inhabit for much of the next decade. Similarly, it finds Williams playing a character who’s forced to climb the mountain of bullshit he’s created if he ever wants to see the other side.

Williams’ Joey O’Brien is a car salesman who’s every bit as unsavory as his lady-tickler mustache, the sort of guy who looks at a stalled funeral motorcade as an opportunity to pitch a grieving widow. Joey’s unscrupulousness also extends to his love life—director Roger Donaldson hits it square on the nose with Joey’s license plate, “CAD MAN”—with women of different backgrounds and, most importantly, usefulness to him.

There’s the bored, wealthy housewife, Joy (Fran Drescher), as persistent in her demand for commitment as her perpetually yapping dog. Lila (Lori Petty) is a deluded would-be designer who’s Lori Petty-levels of irritating, and who Joey primarily keeps around for her youthful sex appeal. And ex-wife Tina (Pamela Reed) is there as a stabilizing reminder of the domestic bliss he squandered. Williams interacts with all of them in varying degrees of frazzle and smarmy flattery; he plays Joey as a man seemingly aware that his schtick is wearing thin, but for whom it borders on sick compulsion.

Cadillac Man can’t help piling on the dramatic contrivances, like Joey’s addiction to wooing women (including a fellow salesperson, with lines that would land anyone outside a 1990 movie in a sexual harassment suit). Not only is Joey torn between all his affairs, he’s also under the threat of losing his job unless he can sell 12 cars in a single day, and he owes money to a mob boss, and his daughter is missing. All these complications converge and implode once Larry (Tim Robbins), an AK-47-toting lunkhead who’s come to accuse his wife (Annabella Sciorra) of cheating on him, holds Joey’s dealership hostage. From there, the movie becomes a claustrophobic, romantic-comedy spin on Dog Day Afternoon, with the close quarters forcing Joey to confront everything he’s been hiding behind his very Robin Williams-like way of deflecting with humor.

Played by anybody else, of course, Joey O’Brien would be a stock misogynist sleazebag, but Williams manages the feat of making him… well, if not as immediately likable as Adrian Cronauer or John Keating, not completely odious either. It’s also rare to see Williams playing a character this frayed; Joey oozes perspiration not only from his brow but in his words, with Williams’ usual rat-a-tat laughter taking on a desperate, manic edge. In light of the actor’s death, the film now takes on a more melancholy subtext—the story of a man whose comedy reflexes only mask the deeper problems he’s trying to avoid, until finally he can’t anymore. But speaking purely in terms of Williams’ performance, Cadillac Man is a triumph of salesmanship.


Availability: Cadillac Man is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store.