Tag Archives: comedy

Remembering Robin Williams: Nate’s Top Ten Performances

Robin Williams left us five years ago this week, and out of all the celebrities, actors and entertainers who have passed on, his absence is still the one I feel most. So what made him so special? For me it was the way he could cut so deep in both serious and comic performances. When he showed up in the room the energy turned light and carefree as the zany, untethered forces of his improvisation and imagination took over like a gentle breeze. Then when it was time to rein it in for a more serious, introspective scene he would be less effervescent but the light in his eyes wouldn’t dim, the focus wouldn’t falter and he’d demonstrate his equally brilliant talent for heartbreaking drama as well. He could carry an entire film on his own, light up a supporting role and even make a cameo glimmer through to become memorable. In looking back I’d like to highlight the ten performances that are most personal, most memorable and mean the most to me as someone who grew up watching him on the TV all the time, idolized and loved him dearly. Enjoy!

10. Adrian Cronauer in Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Viet Nam

No other scenario requires a much needed sense of humour like the fog of war, but Williams’s rebellious spirit isn’t received well by the brass in Nam, yet he makes it clear that a good dose of verbal comedy is exactly what the airwaves need in this case. It’s a no holds barred performance with some touching emotional notes and plenty of slotted time to let loose behind a radio DJ’s mic.

9. Walter Finch in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia

Cast against type as the freaky villain of Nolan’s chilly murder mystery, he channels a Stephen King style energy in playing a slippery antagonist set against Alaska’s grey skies and at odds with Al Pacino’s sharp but distraught homicide cop. Williams is somehow constantly likeable yet creepy in a way you can’t quite put your finger on until the third act rolls around and he really lets it rip.

8. Parry in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King

Mental illness gets a ballistic but tender portrayal in Gilliam’s urban fantasy that sees Robin as a former professor of medieval history who loses his mind following a tragedy. Surreal production design helps his work flow but the raw potency is all his in a performance that brings down the house, brings out the best in both Gilliam and Jeff Bridges and shows how a mind broken isn’t necessarily one lost forever.

7. The Genie in Disney’s Aladdin

I’m pretty sure all of the Genie’s dialogue wasn’t even scripted off the bat, I think they just sat Williams down in front of a voiceover mic each morning, gave him a general outline and then slowly backed away out of the room to observe the magic happen. The result is a nostalgic blast of a vocal performance that so many hold dear and one of the most quotable Disney characters of all time.

6. Alan Parrish in Joe Johnston’s Jumanji

Infusing childlike wonder is something he was always good at, and it served well here in playing a guy who has been trapped inside a deadly jungle themed board game since he was a kid. His chemistry with Bonnie Hunt is funny and touching, his feral mania upon being finally released from the game into 90’s suburbia is hilarious and the interaction with young Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce makes for a dynamic character that I always love to revisit.

5. Philip Brainard in Disney’s Flubber

Williams plays an incarnation of the absent minded professor archetype in Disney’s unfairly dismissed comedy. In a film whose star is a rambunctious pile of ever morphing charismatic green goo, trust Williams to defy that description and upstage the Flubber itself with his own wild, inspired performance. But he also gets surprisingly deep when lamenting: “I’ve spent my whole life out there trying to figure how the world works when I should have been trying to figure out *why* it works..” it’s a disarming line to hear him intone in a heartfelt manner from a Disney film, but that’s why I love this one so much.

4. Sean Maguire in Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting

Mentor, friend and advisor to Matt Damon’s prodigal kid, Williams imparts wisdom in clear eyed fashion here as an extremely down to earth fellow faced with an extraordinary situation. His mid film monologue to Damon won him a best supporting Oscar, but the moment that captures this character’s spirit most beautifully is when he wistfully remembers his wife who passed away, and injects some humour into the conversation that was purely Robin’s improvisation and as a result hits the scene home.

3. Rainbow Randolph in Danny Devito’s Death To Smoochy

Devito’s venomous farce of children’s media is a criminally undervalued and quite terrific film, and Williams goes into full on nut-bar mode as a disgraced kiddie show host who never should have been let on the air to begin with. Trying to kill Edward Norton’s beloved rhino Smoochy in between bouts of rage, flagrant insecurity and maniacal mood swings, it’s an incredibly ballsy, thoroughly R rated and absolutely hysterical piece of black comedy performance art not to be missed.

2. Daniel Hillard/Mrs. Doubtfire in Chris Columbus’s Mrs. Doubtfire

The lengths that loving father Williams goes to in order to see the children he lost custody of here would be horror movie material in any other actor’s hands, but because Robin was so adept at both wacky innovation, disguises and genuine heartfelt explanations for such behaviour, the result is both magical and realistic. The restaurant scene alone is time capsule worthy, in which Hillard has to multitask and hop in and out of the Mrs. Doubtfire suit rapid fire to both have a family dinner and entertain a scotch swilling TV exec (Robert Prosky).

1. Chris Nielsen in Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come

A gorgeous fantasy film showcases Robin in his most deeply felt and affecting performance as a man who has lost everything including his own life. He ventures out across the afterlife through heaven, hell and beyond to find his wife and soulmate (Annabella Sciorra) and save her. Williams portrays celestial determination like no other and a fierce, passionate love for her that shines like a beacon through realms of the astral plane and lights up the film in the process.

Thanks for reading! I hope you all enjoy and hold Robin’s work as dear as I do, and have enjoyed my thoughts here.

-Nate Hill

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The Sweetest Thing

I’ve always liked The Sweetest Thing, a deranged sex comedy from the female perspective that has the winningly bonkers personalities of Cameron Diaz, Christina Applegate and Selma Blair to make it something memorable, if not that original. This got royally shit upon by critics and while I’ll concede that it’s slight, airy stuff without much to say overall, there’s no denying it’s hysterical energy, lovable chemistry between the three leads and overall enjoyable lunacy.

Diaz, Applegate and Blair are three early thirties party girls in San Francisco, all looking for that special guy or at least one to have fun with for the night until he comes along. Diaz is the ruthless player of the bunch, and as the film opens we see a montage showing all the guys she’s dumped, one and done-d and left in the dust, until one night at a club she meets her match in Peter (Thomas Jane), a seemingly perfect guy who vanishes later that night, leaving her with a bunch of what-ifs in her head and the desire to track him down. With Applegate’s help she embarks on a mini road trip to find him, while Blair has some raunchy misadventures with her boyfriend (Johnny Messner) and his massive dong. Others show up along the way including Parker Posey, Frank Grillo, Lillian Adams, James Mangold, Johnathon Schaech and Jason Bateman as Jane’s goofball brother.

I think this wasn’t received well because most super crude sex comedies are done from the male perspective, and there’s this reluctance or uncomfortableness when it’s perceived the other way round, which is sort of unfortunate and not at all a fair or honest angle. These three chicks know how to have fun, love to party and are a blast to watch onscreen, especially seeing the insanity apparent in their group dynamic, which if seems excessively zany for a group of girlfriends, trust me.. it’s not. There’s some really raunchy stuff like a semen stained dress getting licked by an elderly dry cleaning owner and a dick piercing getting snagged down a girl’s throat during a blowjob, and don’t get me started on The Penis Song. It’s all in good fun though, and the guys get to have a blast too, as we see Jane and Bateman at a driving range whacking balls at the hapless groundskeeper who wears a confederate flag hat. Not a great film, but definitely a hilarious one and worth it to see Cameron, Christina and Selma clearly having about as much fun as you can in front of a camera.

-Nate Hill

Mrs. Doubtfire

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.

-Nate Hill

Mike Judge’s Idiocracy

I finally got around to watching Mike Judge’s Idiocracy (I know, shame me) and I couldn’t believe how hilarious and scarily on point this fucker is. Luke Wilson plays the most painfully average dude (life imitates art in terms of his onscreen charisma) who is frozen by the military along with a hooker (Maya Rudolph) and following one hell of a clerical error, wakes up five centuries into the future where it seems that stupid people have been breeding like rabbits and humanity has become a lot… stupider.

This is obviously a satire with a heightened sense of reality, but the themes, jokes and visual representation of dumbed down culture are just somehow so terrifyingly prescient that one has to squirm in equal doses as chuckle. The future has become a polyester soaked, energy drink saturated, lowbrow humour wasteland of mammoth Costcos, gladiator level monster truck rallies that serve to ‘rehabilitate’ dissidents and all intellectualism has been deemed too ‘faggy’ by the general population. The highest rated television show is called ‘Ow My Balls’, the film to sweep the Oscars is ‘Ass’ and it’s just that for two hours although in the golden age of indie surrealism that may be close to the mark in a way that Judge didn’t intend lol. People have names like Beef Supreme, Frito and, in the President’s case, ‘Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Comacho’, and if I for any reason ever need a formal name change, it’s going to be that. He’s played by Terry Crews by the way, who actually would be a decent choice to run for real.

I keep describing the future here because the world building and lampoonery that Judge traffics in is so goddamn fucking funny and engaging that that’s really all you need to keep the momentum of this thing going, and plot be damned. There is a plot though, as soon as everyone figures out that Wilson is pretty much the smartest dude on the planet, and they rely on him to fix a world run amok. Wilson is in a sense the perfect actor to headline this story; there’s this wide eyed, childlike incredulity he exudes in every situation that is almost funnier than anything he’s gawking at, plus he’s just this side of likeable. Rudolph is hysterical as the braindead hoe who takes advantage of their situation and eventually learns a thing or two as well, but not how to paint. Dax Shepard does a comedic turn for the ages as Frito, a ‘lawyer’ who tags along with Wilson & Co. and acts as guide to this underworld of asininity, giggling at toilet humour and scarcely uttering anything past a few blunt syllables. Watch for cameos from Justin Long, Patrick Fischler, Thomas Haden Church and Judge regular Stephen Root.

So, *is* this film a documentary? Lol not quite, but I can see the angle from which that lament comes from. But you know, one time I was staying with friends in the Fraser Valley, which for those who don’t know is the more rural regions outside the big city where much of the ‘monster truck’ crowd have settled. I was in the kitchen asking my friend’s mom where I could find a glass for water, to which she laughed, opened the fridge that was stocked only with pop and said “we’re not really a water drinking household.” I feel like it’s that mentality that Judge skewers here and maybe what feels so close to home, as well as the overall collective forces of dumb that pervade our world every day, from the news to pop culture to entertainment media and everything in between. I’m not sure why this got so buried on release, I remember noticing it in Blockbuster way back when and noting that it went straight to video. That sort of relegated it to being a cult classic instead of an outright classic but that’s okay too. In any case this is a detailed, brilliant, hysterical farce on humanity at its most extreme and pitiable, laced with Judge’s trademark droll deadpan, a dazzling visual mood-scape and lively performances from all. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Blake Edwards’ The Party

Anyone who’s been on a movie set, or any professional or social setting for that matter, knows that one lovable but clumsy wrecking ball who constantly trips over stuff, fucks shit up and inadvertently causes disaster wherever they go. In Blake Edwards’s brilliant 60’s screwball comedy The Party that someone is Peter Sellars as Hrundi V. Bakshi, a hapless Indian extra actor who just can’t seem to get it right, despite his best intentions.

Hrundi is blacklisted after causing what was probably a million dollar mistake on set, but the producer accidentally logs his name into the guest list of the swankiest party Hollywood has to offer, and he’s gonna crash the hell out of it. It turns out to be one of those straight-laced, button down industry affairs somewhere in The Hills, and he ends up standing out like an elephant at a house party (that later crosses over from metaphorical to literal, by the way). From the moment he walks through the door he’s knocking shit over, hitting the wrong intercom buttons, nosediving into the fancy indoor pool thingy and generally cultivating a level of uproarious pandemonium that reaches near maniacal heights in the third act. I’ve been to some barnstormer house parties in my day but never one with parrots, bows and arrows, rooms filled with soap bubbles and a painted elephant. Okay, maybe I have, but just not with the elephant.

The cool thing about this character Sellars creates is that despite being an outright moron and harbinger of unavoidable mayhem, he’s actually the sweetest, gentlest human you could meet and just seems cursed with the shitty luck of being the clumsiest guy at the circus. You can see by the way he protects a budding starlet (Claudine Longet) from the slimy sexual advances of a nasty mega producer and just in the simple way he treats people with earnest kindness that he’s a far cry from the polished but seedy diplomacy one usually finds at these events. He’s endlessly watchable and Bakshi is my favourite character he’s ever come up with, whether he’s literally talking back to a parrot who’s yapping at him (Birdy num nums!!), trying to fix the destruction caused by a severely liquored up waiter (Steve Franken) or fanboying over his favourite western movie star (Denny Miller), he’s an unbridled joy to watch and I still can’t believe this never got a sequel. The house in question is designed like a carefully primed mousetrap of pratfalls and slapstick hijinks and the script is a breezy, unconstructed playground for this guy to tear around like a driverless ATV in a Walmart. I used to watch this film with my dad all the time, it was one of his favourites and has become one of mine, the ultimate comedy of errors that has a beating heart and enough comic set pieces to blast the roof off the house. Brilliant film.

-Nate Hill

The Farrelly’s There’s Something About Mary

There’s Something About Mary, and there’s also just something about The Farrelly Brothers, something about the way they make bad taste seem passable and almost classy, something about how they make incredibly silly shit come across as utterly hilarious. This is a film that would never get made these days, it would get hounded out of the office halfway through the pitch, which is deliciously ironic when you consider that one of these two screwball directors nabbed an Oscar this past year for a film that couldn’t be a farther cry from stuff like this. There’s so much to laugh at here you barely get breaks in between, and while any hope of actual pathos crumbles in the face of relentless comic rumpus time, it never lags or slows down either. Ben Stiller is Ted, hapless sap who tracks down his old high school sweetheart Mary (Cameron Diaz) because he just can’t let her go. Only problem is, half the rest of the state falls for her too including ultra sleazy private eye Healy (Matt Dillon is a force of nature here) and others that I dare not spoil here. The plot is essentially really creepy and peppered with all kinds of questionable shit, but the visual gags, situational humour and just plain slapstick madness somehow work so well. Not to mention the cameos, including Jeffrey Tambor as Healy’s cokehead pal, Richard Jenkins as a therapist who’s bored out of his mind, Keith David as Mary’s gregarious stepfather and standup comic Harland Williams as the man with the seven minute abs idea. You couldn’t make this shit up, but the Farrellys somehow did and it’s one of the funniest fucking things I’ve ever seen. Stiller is an inherently pesky actor you’re never sure if you should like or just be mad at simply for existing, but it works for the role here. Dillon uses that pithy, laconic drawl to maximum effect and I don’t think you could dream up a sleazier character if you tried. Diaz is a ray of pure sunshine in anything and she reaches the closest thing you could call to actual ‘acting’ that anyone gets to here, bringing a good natured sweetness that goes a long way. Scrotums caught in zippers, a dog on fire, a horde of disabled folks played for laughs, semen used as hair gel, a hacked up corpse in a gym bag, these are the down n’ dirty things the Farrellys peddle in, and when it comes to them, it’s only the finest from this duo. Between this, Dumb & Dumber and Me, Myself & Irene you kind of get a holy trinity of there distilled comedic aesthetic, one that remains hilarious to this day.

-Nate Hill

Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky

After a sort of slow opening act, Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky becomes a sweet, funny, raucous, touching and unexpected film, the most enjoyable thing he’s made after a series of dead serious dramas. Kind of like Ocean’s Eleven for the Monster Truck crowd, this is popcorn fare with brains, but it’s not afraid to get loopy and mess around in the sandbox either in terms of comedy and characterization, especially that of Daniel Craig’s Joe Bang, the world’s most aloof safecracker. Joe’s help is needed when brothers Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver) Logan take it upon themselves to stage a heist during NASCAR mania when times of financial woe befall them. Jimmy is laid back and affable, Clyde is old school idiosyncratic to the point of hysterics and their dynamic is something hilarious. Throw in Joe with a Bang and the thing takes off, once the gears of the plot start grinding, mind you. Like I said, the opening dilly dallys a tad. Despite being a screwball comedy of sorts, this never goes too far off the rails into, say, Cannonball Run territory and never feels *too* light or inconsequential. Soderbergh is an alchemist in complete control of every element and this thing unfolds deliberately, intricately and always playfully. Surrounding them is a delightfully eclectic supporting cast including Seth McFarlane, Riley Keogh, Katie Holmes, Jack Quaid, Brian Gleeson, Katherine Waterson, Macon Blair, Sebastian Stan and Dwight Yoakam as a breezy Prison Warden. The heist is a blast, full of screw ups, diversions and delirious suspense as these ill prepared, lovably hapless goofs try to do right by their families and each other. Craig must be broken out of jail where he’s “in-car-cer-ated” for the duration of the job and then stealthily returned once the mission is accomplished, and Jimmy has to be done with it all in time for a beauty pageant that his daughter (Farrah Mackenzie, wonderful) is appearing in. It’s fairly random but it just somehow works, from left field character choices to specifically nutty set pieces to third act twists that come out of nowhere. Just when you think you can relax, a federal agent (Hilary Swank in full shark mode) shows up to stir the pot again. The film ends on a narrative cliffhanger and with perhaps one of the best and most enticing zoom-out shots I’ve ever seen that had me both wishing for a sequel and wanting the magic to remain bottled just there at that perfect penultimate moment. Great film.

-Nate Hill