See It Instead: Robin Williams Retrospective
Sometimes a movie comes along and makes you aware of an itch you never knew you had. Perhaps a reviewpiqued your interest, or you’d rather stay in and pay yourself $10 for a small popcorn and watch a movie on the cheap. Perhaps you’re valiantly struggling through your queue on Netflix or Amazon Prime, and need a wise, cultured voice to direct you to where the real movie viewing gold is hiding amidst the terrible movies . Well, look no further. See It Instead is here to take today’s new releases and guide you to what you should really be watching.
Film lovers lost a favorite son last week, as actor and comedian Robin Williams passed away. A dynamic and talented figure, Williams played characters of all stripes. An accomplished comedian, both on the stage and on the sound set, Williams created performances that will last the ages: a timid and acrophobic adult Peter Pan in Hook (it is sad that this year we have lost both Williams and Bob Hoskins, who starred together in this film, this same year…Dustin Hoffman must be getting paranoid…), the manic Genie in Disney’s Aladdin, and the wise mouthed radio jock in Good Morning Vietnam. A true Renaissance man, Williams gained his greatest accolades for serious roles: an inspiring teacher in Dead Poet’s Society, an unconventional doctor in Awakenings, and an incisive psychologist in Good Will Hunting (a performance that landed Williams his only Academy Award, though he was nominated several times.) Williams was a well known and well loved performer. To honor his memory, we’ll take a look at some of his lesser known films that you can See Instead, to better appreciate the amazing depth and breadth of his career.
The Serious Pick: The Fisher King (1991)
The second collaboration between Robin Williams and Monty Python alumni and director Terry Gilliam, The Fisher King is a cerebral, yet entertaining film about identity and the many personas people adopt to make it through their day. The story begins with Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) an arrogant radio personality in the mold of Don Imus, who has life by the throat: his career on the air is at its peak, he is wealthy and well-known, and he is up for the lead role in a sitcom that is inspired by his cranky and sarcastic radio persona. This all changes when he blows off a caller one night who is looking for a reason to trust his fellow man. Lucas shoots the guy down and feeds the caller Lucas’ own brand of narcissistic and alpha-male advice: look out for number one. The caller then goes on to murder dozens of people in a shoot-out.
This callous encounter sinks Lucas’ career. Nobody will touch the guy for any role or radio program, and he becomes a bitter drunk who works for his girlfriend’s movie rental store (I know, these things used to exist…) Lucas gets a second chance when he meets Parry, a delusional homeless man played by Robin Williams. Parry saves a drunken Lucas from a local gang, and reveals that he is the fabled Fisher King, the seeker of the Holy Grail. This persona is a crazed creation of Parry’s broken mind…which he invented after his wife was a victim of the mass shooting caused by Lucas’ caller. Lucas takes Parry under his wing, determined to save both of them and atone for his tragic mistake.
The Fisher King is both manic and heartfelt, and manages to create multifaceted characters out of easy stereotypes. Bridges stretches his acting chops by playing an ego-maniac, and Williams channels his exuberant energy into a character who is lovable and challenging: as the fictitious Fisher King, he is the model of the chivalrous knight, but as a man, he is plagued by images of a monstrous Red Knight that causes him mental and physical pain so great he falls into catatonic episodes. Gilliam brilliantly alternates both sides of his leads, so that a lighthearted sing-along turns into a shrieking battle with the Red Knight, and a heart-warming dinner date between Williams and his secret crush ends in crushing mental trauma for Lucas.
In addition to being an excellently acted film, The Fisher King is also a cultural keep-sake. The moment of time that this film inhabits is nearly ancient history only two decades later. New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani relentlessly pushed the homeless population out of NYC, making the once iconic droves of colorful (and mentally unstable) residents of the Big Apple a thing of the past. The video rental store has pretty much ceased to exist. And radio shock-jocks like Imus, Stern, and Limbaugh are hollow remnants of their former selves, if they even maintain a presence on the air-waves at all. This film captures a moment in time and invests the characters of that moment with real passion and personality. That is quite a feat in of itself.
The Lighthearted Pick: Popeye (1980)
Popeye is often called a flop, despite having doubled its money at the box office. A live action musical of a comic strip/cartoon that was dated even by 1980, Popeye had every obstacle to overcome. It was Robin Williams’ first starring role, opposite seasoned veterans such as Shelley Duvall and Ray Walston. In addition, Williams is nearly unrecognizable due to the prosthesis he wears to mimic Popeye’s odd arms, chin, and squint. Not a great way to start a career.
The anonymity apparently freed Williams to attack the role with abandon. He swaggers, sings, and brawls, all in Popeye’s iconic manner. He is very literally a cartoon come to life. The rest of the cast plays a good game, aping the mannerisms of well-known characters (including Paul L. Smith as Bluto, a role he seems to have been born to play) but Williams is a force of nature as the put-upon sailor who gains tremendous power from leafy greens. In a nice twist, it is revealed that Popeye hates spinach…
The musical numbers are uneven (Shelly Duvall as Olive Oyl gets most of the best numbers…probably because she can actually sing.) The film alternates between petty domestic squabbles and epic brawls, including a ridiculous finale featuring Popeye vs. Bluto vs. a giant freaking Octopus. All in all, it’s not the greatest film…but it manages to be charming and to nail its source material to a tee. As Williams first major role, it really shows the comedic genius of the man, his ability to lose himself in a role, and the talent he had to transforming silliness into fine entertainment.
The Unconventional Pick: Insomnia (2002)
No account of Robin Williams career would be complete without including his more serious offerings. Even many of his funniest films, such as Mrs. Doubtfire and Jumanji, include a somber and human element of loss. Despite his virtuoso performances, Williams was rarely allowed to play the bad guy. It wasn’t until late in his career that he got a plum role as a soft spoken murderer in Christopher Nolan’s remake of Insomnia.
Starring alongside Al Pacino and Hillary Swank, Williams is mesmerizing as a small town celebrity in Nightmute, Alaska. A brutal murder in the remote community brings a big-time detective (Pacino) to town as a favor of the local police chief. Little does anyone suspect that the favor it actually on the chief’s behalf, as Pacino is facing corruption charges back in LA due to falsifying evidence to get an arrest. His partner on the case accompanies him, but reveals that he is going to testify against Pacino in order to avoid charges himself. Pacino begins to unravel, and sets up a sloppy sting to catch the murderer that quickly goes wrong: the murderer is aware of the trap, and baits Pacino into shooting his own partner when the two police officers chase the suspect into the fog. Knowing that he will never be believed in a case of accidental shooting, Pacino falsifies evidence again…and plays right into Williams’ hands.
Williams plays a local author whose sexual interest in a taken woman turns violent. He beats her to death, and then leads the local police on a goose chase, ultimately leading to Pacino being called in. Assured of his own superior intelligence, Williams then causes Pacino’s “accident” and blackmails him to throw the case away from his trail. As the days drag on without sign of night, Pacino slips into a haze of guilt-induced insomnia, and makes error after error in the case. Can he pull himself together long enough to aid a young detective (played by Swank) to catch Williams…and does he even want to?
Insomnia is a wonderful tale of blurred morality and self-interest. Pacino’s characteristic delivery is actually tailor made to imply severe sleep deprivation. Williams obviously relished the opportunity to play a villain, but his take on the character is fascinating: a mystery novelist, he is immersed in the world of police procedure, and perceives himself to be the “author” of this tragedy, allowing him to toy with the detectives on his trail. He is cold, clinical, and possessed of a malevolent God complex. He even brags to Pacino by confessing…and then pointing out that the confession is worthless to him.
A brilliant adaptation of a foreign work (that is equally worth the time to view), Insomnia showed that Williams’ mastery of character covered both sides of the spectrum, and that he was capable of amazing work in “serious” roles as well.
Once again, the library of Robin Williams’ achievements is vast and worthy of attention. Even small roles, such as he had in Kenneth Brannagh’s Hamlet, are a delight to watch. It is sad to have lost such a supremely talented actor, and the knowledge that several films of his work yet remain to be released can only lessen the pain by a little. Much will be discussed about the manner of his passing, and the relationship between his personal struggles and the roles he portrayed, but I prefer to let his body of work speak for itself. A man who poured so much of himself into his craft deserves no less.