Ah Robin Williams. Will we ever forget him? Not likely. He gave so much joy to the world that sadly it seems he didn’t have any left for himself. But I didn’t start writing this post with the intention of being morbid. I intend to talk about a little film of his that I re-watched the other night called Mrs. Doubtfire. It was never one of my favourite films that I would watch over and over again, as I’m sure it was for many people, but I do remember it being a pretty big part of popular culture as I was growing up in the 90s (and incidentally it was released the very same year I was born). While there is no denying the film’s popularity and legacy, I’d like to give my own personal thoughts on how well it holds up.
The “drag queen” comedy, in which a male actor masquerades as a woman for comedic effect, has now been done many times in films like Big Momma’s House, White Chicks and Jack and Jill. The Chris Columbus directed Mrs. Doubtfire arguably started this trend, and I personally think the novelty wore off almost immediately. However, while I don’t find Adam Sandler in drag to be remotely entertaining, that is not the case with Robin Williams; I find him funny, believable and strangely charming as the eponymous character. I have no doubt that this is down to just how darn good an actor he was. He imitates the voice, personality and mannerisms of an old British woman almost flawlessly and it is his performance that brings life to what would otherwise most likely be a sub-par comedy.
The film follows Daniel Hillard, an out of work voice actor whose irresponsible attitude soon leads to him getting divorced and separated from his three children Lydia, Chris and Natalie. Unable to bear the thought of only seeing his kids once a week, Hillard uses his skills as an impressionist to answer an ad placed by his wife Miranda (Sally Field) seeking a housekeeper/babysitter. With the help of his makeup artist brother Frank, Daniel takes on the role of sweet old house-lady “Mrs. Doubtfire”. After being hired by Miranda, he attempts to rebuild his relationship with his family while also trying to sabotage Miranda’s blossoming romance with the handsome Stu Dunmeyer (Pierce Brosnan). And naturally, hilarity ensues.
In terms of character, Daniel/Mrs. Doubtfire is of course the most enjoyable and the most fully developed, but the supporting characters aren’t too bad. Miranda can be unlikable at times but is always at least somewhat understandable in her actions. A working mother coming home to find that her husband has allowed the house to be trashed and attracted the police? Yeah, we can all see why she’d be a bit irritable. We do get to know her warmer side as the story progresses and Sally Field is a great actress as always. Pierce Brosnan’s character Stu also has both his unlikable and likeable traits, as while his distaste towards Daniel is made clear he does seem to genuinely care about Lydia, Chris and Natalie. However, at the end of the day he is still essentially Pierce Brosnan. The children themselves are fairly cute and charming, although they aren’t given an awful lot of development. We get a sense of their relationship with Daniel but we don’t find out much about them personally; we know that Natalie likes storybooks and that’s about it. Even though delving into subplots involving them would probably have distracted too much from the main story, it wouldn’t have hurt for us to know more about who they are so we can better identify with them.
The story is reasonably well structured, although if I had one major complaint it would be that I think the film drags on slightly towards the end. The restaurant scene in which Daniel is switching back and forth between identities gets a tad exhausting. I do understand that the situation is a comedic setup and gives Daniel a problem to overcome; I just think it takes its time too much. As for the comedy, some of it works and some of it doesn’t. The comedy that does work mostly comes from Williams’ charisma in the title role; lines like “broke by bag the b***ard” and “it was a run-by fruiting” are just unforgettable. Scenes in which comedy is derived from Daniel trying to be both identities at once don’t personally do much for me, but my tastes tend to be more off the wall than other people’s.
For all the film’s strengths and weaknesses, I believe the overall message it tries to convey to be well handled and relevant, if slightly over-sentimentalised. As I’ve mentioned previously however, it is dear old Robin that makes it as he delivers one of his many memorable performances that will likely be enjoyed for years to come.
Posted by Frank Short