What was the last Robin Williams comedy that anyone was excited about? Williams wore out his welcome about the time he and pal Billy Crystal made the unbearable Father's Day in 1997. About Williams in that movie, Robert Ebert expressed it best: "He's getting to be like the goofy uncle who knows one corny parlor trick and insists on performing it at every family gathering."
When Williams was good--let's say 1982 to 1994 -- the results were oftentimes spectacular, such as 1993's Mrs. Doubtfire, when his cleverness and comic timing transcended the saccharine boundaries of the typical family film and made it legitimately funny. For younger readers looking for a relatively contemporary comparison, Will Ferrell did the same thing in Elf.
In Mrs. Doubtfire, Williams plays Daniel Hillard, a sporadically employed actor and devotedly loving father to his three kids. He's the "fun" parent, the one whose idea of an impromptu birthday party features a petting zoo and dancing on the furniture. For Daniel's wife, Miranda (Sally Field), the fun ended a long time ago. Tired of playing the stern taskmaster, she demands a divorce.
The judge decrees that Daniel can only see the kids on weekends, which is unacceptable to him. Looking for any way to spend time with them, he doctors Miranda's ad for a housekeeper, dons tons of make-up, and fashions an English accent out of Masterpiece Theater. Voila, now he's Mrs. Doubtfire, the coolest nanny ever!
What begins as a way to see his kids gets complicated when Mrs. Doubtfire becomes a crucial part in the unknowing family's life. The kids love her and Miranda considers her a confidante. When Miranda starts dating a hunky ex-flame (Pierce Brosnan), the line between performance and real life gets very blurry, especially since Mrs. Doubtfire turns Daniel into a better father.
The movie's success relies on a delicate balance. Williams handles the dual roles expertly; he restrains his id just enough when under layers of latex and padding, delivering a series of puns and one-liners that keeps the movie lively and dramatically credible. The professional supporting cast, specifically Brosnan and Field, keep us from drowning in Williams' antics, and the script (co-written by Leslie Dixon of 2003's Freaky Friday) handles comedy and growing pains with equal skill. Mrs. Doubtfire doesn't deal with divorce as a punch line, but as a life situation a shattered family has to handle.
Yes, the movie is sometimes too frantic for its own good and there are one too many scenes of Williams riffing, but it's not the train wreck it could have been if it had starred, say, David Spade. Mrs. Doubtfire is also relevant in the case of Williams. Maybe he needs to stifle his buffoonish antics and welcome some discipline into his life. Hey, it worked for Daniel Hillard; maybe it can work in the real world.