How much Robin Williams can we take? A week before his new film, House of D, previewed in Boston, Williams appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher on Friday, at the Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday (where he tactfully walked offstage because he could not shut the hell up), and at the Oscars on Sunday. Add in his shtick from the unavoidable onslaught of Robots TV commercials, and this guy gets more airtime than a Martha Stewart prison release.
It's a testament then to Williams's fine acting, and debut writer-director David Duchovny, that the motor-mouth's co-starring turn in House of D isn't a turn-off. Far from it. Williams and 15-year-old Anton Yelchin (Hearts in Atlantis) make up the unlikely duo in this coming-of-age drama about the friendship between Pappass, a mentally retarded janitor (Williams), and Tommy, a single-parent teen (Yelchin) in 1973 Greenwich Village. Williams displays, as he does in most of his dramatic films, a welcome appropriateness, a delivery of action and reaction that helps give House of D a good heart and some laugh-out-loud nuggets of wisdom.
"Mentally retarded" may seem a bit harsh in our 2005 hyper-PC world, but it's the phrase used in the rougher '70s, and in the film, and it symbolizes the edge with which Duchovny unfolds most of his flashback story. On the occasion of his son's 13th birthday, the adult Tommy (Duchovny) recalls his NYC upbringing -- Duchovny intros this reminiscence with an annoyingly flat voiceover (Red Shoe Diaries, anyone?) and then smartly leaves the bulk of the film to Yelchin and Williams.
Put aside the forced dynamic of a teen being best buddies with a grown man who's not all there. For now. Tommy and Pappass - taunting each other with calls of "Thom-ass" and "Pap-ass" - rabble rouse while delivering meat for the local butcher shop, politely pushing for tips, ogling sexy customers, and riding their delivery bike with childlike abandon. Duchovny breezes through these scenes, establishing the pair's bawdy humor and carefree ways.
Things get prickly when Tommy falls for a girl (Robin's real-life daughter, Zelda Williams, sweet and surely competent). Pappass gets jealous, loses his already feeble mind temporarily, and causes Tommy to take the fall as a heroic friend. As Tommy's world disintegrates - mourning, drugged-out mom (Téa Leoni) is quite the liability - he relies on his advisor... and House of D's biggest problem: Erykah Badu as an imprisoned hooker (with a heart of gold!), who hollers life recommendations through the bars and out onto the street. Badu is fine, but her character is not. It's a hokey, immature wedge that sticks in contrast to the film's individuality and honesty.
You would think the Pappass character would be an even bigger problem, especially with a mental capacity that allows for annoyingly convenient plot progression and emotion. Sure, Pappass's level of comprehension is frustratingly inconsistent, but he serves a legitimate narrative purpose, one that Duchovny feels no need to defend. It's New York City, and a fatherless teen may as well get his friends wherever he can find them. Yelchin, a talented young actor with a well-metered pace, handles his relationship as he might with anybody else in the neighborhood. Things only get mushy and weak in adulthood, I guess...
Though some of his action lacks a natural flow, Duchovny has created a literate film, as we knew someone of his assumed intellect could. When a pubescent Tommy urinates (with force!) on his mother's dead cigs in the toilet, there's a whole lot of psychology going on there - once Duchovny can combine that sort of thinking with a smoother narrative, he's got something.
The DVD offers an alternate ending (heavy on the title cards), a few deleted scenes, a Q&A with Duchovny, and a pair of behind-the-scenes featurettes.
I'm Yelchin ya for the last time.