Friday, September 12, 2014

Weekend Entertainment: Robin Williams, 4 of His Best Films

World According to Garp, John Irving
Robin Williams, John Lithgow, Glen Close
I read the novel when it was first published and just loved it. When I saw the movie, the book was still quite vivid in my mind. One problem there was in filming this book was in it you are also reading Jenny's book, "The Sexual Suspect," which is quite gripping. The movie, by contrast, had to use a visual medium to show two people who were writers, Jenny and her son Garp. George Roy Hill was a wonderful director but that is nevertheless quite a feat to bring off. I did like the movie though. For one, it had some extraordinary talent in it: Robin Williams, Glen Close, and John Lithgow, just to name the most prominent. There were imaginative leaps too, such as acting out some of the stories in flight of fancies. So I liked it but I can't honestly say I loved it when I saw it such a long time ago upon its initial release.

In the wake of Robin Williams' death, I decided to watch it again. I liked it much, much better this second time because I was not weighing and balancing it against the novel. This is because I have not read the novel in decades. So only bits and pieces of it came back to me while watching it. This time, I have no complaints.

Does the film have a plot? Yes, it has "the only plot". This is about Garp's life, all the good and bad in it and how he meets and greets life and gets through it. He has a good outlook and this is largely because of his mother, Jenny. He has great joys and great sorrows. He tackles life head on and gets on with it. He falters badly once but Jenny and Roberta help him recover his will to live and go on. Jenny becomes a big feminist leader through her book and John Lithgow, who plays a woman (transgendered), is Jenny's right hand woman. All of these actors are marvelous.

In light of Robin Williams recent suicide, you will find yourself wishing that he had been more in real life like Garp and that he had had one strong, loving, totally supportive and "there" parent like Jenny Fields in this work of literature. That could have enabled a lengthier life. That adds a rather sad coda to this film but it will not interfere with your enjoyment of it.

Birdcage, starring Robin Williams & Nathan Lane
This is the second time I've seen this film. The first time was too close to when I'd seen the film it was based upon, the French "La Cage Aux Folles". That was one of the best films ever made so it verged on the profane to remake it. This time when I saw it, I had not seen the original in several decades. So I found myself for the first time not comparing the versions. So this time I really appreciated the superb cast assembled for this version.

Robin Williams and Nathan Lane play a gay couple in South Beach Florida. They have a building there that has their apartment upstairs and their nightclub downstairs. Williams is the producer and Lane is the star of their drag queen revue. Into this mix comes the son they raised together (biologically Williams had her with a woman who has been out of their lives for 20 years). The son is getting married and he has picked the daughter of an ultra right wing conservative senator played by none other than the great Gene Hackman. Everyone in this family tries to fool the senator and his wife as to their real lifestyle.

They of course have no chance of passing as ultra right wing conservative sympathizers but they give it a hilarious try. They try to become "real men" with lousy results. What is ironic is that Williams was really not gay but he is utterly convincing as being a gay man trying to pass himself off as a straight man. Now that takes talent! Lane is wonderful in the showier totally gay drag queen role but it is closer to what he really is as an obviously gay man both on stage and off.

Other acting heavy weights round out the cast from Diane Wiest to Hank Azaria to Christine Baranski. If it hadn't been a remake of a French classic, it probably would have done very well at the Oscars.

Cadillac Man, directed by Roger Donaldson
stars: Robin Williams, Tim Robbins
This was incredibly well written and performed by two master Oscar winning actors, Robin Williams and Tim Robbins. We open with Williams for awhile because we need to see him struggling. He is over his head in every respect. He is divorced, has several girlfriends, his car sales are way down, he's in debt and about to loose his job. This was a guy who once upon a time could sell ice to eskimos as the old joke goes.

This set up is necessary because as soon as we have this portrait of Joey (Williams), Tim Robbins bursts in on the scene with a shotgun and explosives and is ready to kill everyone at the dealership that day because his wife has been having an affair. Joey who at heart really loves people (the basis of his problem) in a burst of courage recovers his mojo and spends the entire rest of the movie negotiating with Robbins to save everyone. It is their movie from that point on. It is almost as if Williams is doing one of his famous stand up acts but with Robbins as his partner.

From the point that Robbins and Williams come together, it is an absolutely brilliant comedy because it focuses with laser sharpness on the one thing that matters: being able to see the world in perspective. Both of these characters had lost this ability out in the world and now they are going to regain it. Apparently some people do not like this film and I cannot figure out why. I saw it when it first came out and thought it was great. I just watched it again decades later and thought it was great again. Now that Williams is gone, perhaps people will come to finally appreciate the film.

World's Greatest Dad
Bobcat Goldwaithe and Robin Williams 
Bobcat Goldwaithe was the writer and director of this film. He is known more as a stand up comic and comedy writer than he is as a dramatist of any sort. And, of course, Robin Williams was known even more as a stand up comic by just about everyone in the world. So it figures that when they made a movie together, they chose the darkest of comedies. It turns present days problems with parents, children, teachers, technology, isolation and the like right on its head. If you think this is going to be sappy, it is not. It knows what it wants to skewer and goes right for the jugular.

The first thing it tackles head on is being a single parent and having a really terrible kid. The principal probably has it right when he says the teenage son has serious developmental problems. The kid is downright nasty and awful towards everyone. Plus he sexually acts out all of the time in revolting ways. Frankly, if someone in high school is that emotionally disturbed, I have my doubts if anyone could have helped him change.

Robin Williams plays his father and is also a poetry teacher in the same school. He is a quiet man who hopes to be a published writer some day but has had everything rejected. He is not bitter though. His demeanor is more resigned, even to being saddled with this horrible son.

Then the son dies in a freak accident and everything afterward gets skewered. Everything up to that point has been an elaborate set up leading to this point and then the movie really takes off to handle all of the subjects Goldwaithe and Williams were waiting to handle. I thought it was great but I don't think it had much of an audience upon its release in 2009.

Be warned that there are many similarities to the son's freak accident and Robin Williams' recent suicide. It is almost spooky how close the two are.

Incredibly, I have only scratched the surface of his legacy in listing these four films.

Note: I have been watching Robin Williams' work non stop every evening so decided to dedicate this week's entertainment column to him. His work is available everywhere as the great bulk of it is enormously popular.

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