Ever watch Mrs. Doubtfire lately? Some 90’s films haven’t aged all that well in the years since, but if anything this one has improved, and endured as a sterling classic. What was it about Robin Williams that made him such a dynamic, magnetic and beloved artist? The list is long but for me it was his uncanny, intuitive ability to feel his way around a scene using both dramatic tenderness and that wildly energetic comedic mania that was his trademark. There’s this childlike earnestness when he’s expressing himself in a serious or sorrowful scene that is so damn genuine, and the unbridled mayhem in comic sequences interplays in a delicate balancing act that no one has ever replicated.
Here as voiceover actor and loving father Daniel Hillard he proves that he’ll go to any lengths for his three children (Lisa Jakub, Matthew Lawrence and Mara ‘Matilda’ Wilson) including elaborately disguising himself as a late middle aged British nanny just so he can spend more time with them. This is thanks to his makeup whiz of a brother (The lovable Harvey Fierstein) and ends up fooling everyone including the kids, his ex wife (Sally Field) and even her swanky new suitor (Pierce Brosnan, clearly having fun). The thing is, in the hands of almost any other actor this would be some creepy ass shit. I’ve even seen some spoof trailers on YouTube that recut this to look like a horror flick. But Williams was so talented and put his heart into it to the point that the concept just sells, and feels real despite being completely nuts on paper.
There’s two scenes that sort of cement both his character here and the kind of magic he was capable of on camera as an actor.
In a drab divorce hearing he pleads with the stone faced judge to let him have equal custody, lamenting that he can’t exist without being near his children and the emotion clouding his face feels immediate and organic. Later he has to rapidly switch in and out between the Mrs. Doubtfire disguise to fool a cantankerous social worker (Ann Haney) into believing he’s got his shot together. It involves slam dunking his face into a cake to mask the fact that he accidentally whipped his real mask out the window, and it’s absolutely hilariously inspired work that really illustrates his gift for delirious comedy. He had a long and varied career in film, but this has to be one of the showcase ventures. Aside from his work there’s a breezy, laidback San Francisco vibe and lovely work from a supporting cast including Polly Holiday, Rick Overton, Paul Guillfoye, William Newman and jolly old Robert Prosky as a scotch swilling network TV kingpin.
There’s also a surprising maturity in a narrative that could have easily patronized and pandered to the younger audience. There are core lessons to be learned that are never preached but written in seamlessly and the ending doesn’t cop out or cave in like many films would and do, but remains steadfastly rooted in this bittersweet situation, feeling all the more genuine for it. Williams is the rock, heart and soul of it but it’s a classic all across the board.