Robin Williams’ ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ is bittersweet but still very funny

Written by Maggie Anthony; CNN The Mrs. Doubtfire parodies of 1992, an enduring marker in comedy history, are no joke: One of the subpar versions even features the married couple as different body types…

Robin Williams' 'Mrs. Doubtfire' is bittersweet but still very funny

Written by Maggie Anthony; CNN

The Mrs. Doubtfire parodies of 1992, an enduring marker in comedy history, are no joke: One of the subpar versions even features the married couple as different body types and sexual orientations.

Sarah Jessica Parker’s femininity-exposing Miranda is hounded by critics at work and couldn’t even say the word “mother.” Ground-bound Ricardo (Chris Williams) is downtrodden, catatonic and hostage to his maternal role as Papa Doubtfire’s onetime college roommate.

Wouldn’t you know it? For a while, they both got a day off and headed to sunny San Diego for a heady, aloha-themed reprieve. I wonder if the studio offered that sort of schedule again. If it did, would they bother to change the dialogue? Would they really fall for all the leering overtures?

Directed by Robin Williams and co-written by Seuss creator Dr. Seuss, the 1989 film made a beeline to the top of the box office after its release. It remains a big, very smart kid’s movie, partly because Robin Williams is a brain and partly because there’s not an actor alive who can deliver a line as affectingly as he does “Through the grapevine” with great energy, speed and ease.

Sarah Jessica Parker plays the wife of a widower, played by Robin Williams, in “Mrs. Doubtfire.” Credit: Columbia Pictures/Columbia Pictures Group

His thoughts and answers get delivered in various combinations as Miranda works to solve what she thinks is a brutal injustice at the hands of Mrs. Doubtfire. But it turns out she isn’t so innocent after all, just simple and gullible (which is not an uncommon state of mind for most husbands). It’s the perfect collaboration for a man with such a sharp eye for female presentation.

But Williams was moving on from Robin Williams. His second film, 1988’s “What Dreams May Come,” was his last vehicle he helmed and the results — despite his many roles as big characters — could be considered lackluster. “Mrs. Doubtfire” is surprisingly good — full of “Awakenings”-style halo moments — but this was the last starring vehicle for a truly original talent who had faded from the spotlight by 1994.

You get the feeling the studio and the powers that be might have been hoping for more from this particularly narcissistic Tony Danza. (He also appeared in 1989’s “Overboard.”) But that nadir of his career is the only thing wrong with “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

In 1995, director Chris Columbus had to reboot the characters for the sequel, and by this point Robin Williams was never going to be remotely relevant. Williams returned for the 1993 TV remake; you can see his withdrawal in his smile, his agelessness and his decision not to play it straight.

Kristin Davis plays the wife of a widower, who walks into a bar after a long day and adopts the persona of a woman abandoned by her husband. Credit: Studio/Columbia Pictures/Columbia Pictures Group

But that may have been the right thing for the movie. The first film worked because Robin Williams was at the top of his game. The sequel worked because he left. Even though it was made for the TV market and Williams had some help from women like Helen Hunt and Jeri Ryan to play second fiddle to the SNL original, it’s still hard to watch this movie and not feel the void of Williams’ sidekick in Robin Williams’ Robin Williams.

In a 2003 interview with The New York Times, he explained the role as “a combination of me and Bill Murray from ‘Groundhog Day.'” Certainly that was his way of tapping into his own depression: Murray, with his oddball mannerisms and perpetual sunny disposition, was Williams’ most supportive co-star. Even beyond “Spaceballs,” there are times where we don’t want Bill Murray’s Phil Lloyd to be having a meltdown, never mind seeing them doing that — all in black and white — just like Alice in “Alice in Wonderland.”

The movie went on to spawn numerous sequels — but none that were worthy of its source material. (Seuss did leave behind several good ideas that should have been adapted at some point.) So for 15 years (well before I was an adult), I made this the default sweet spot on my DVD player, save for the Frozen Kim-Cattrall episode of “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” or, God forbid, the more recent documentary “A Kid Like Jake.”

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