Mrs. Doubtfire

Review No. 401


The Bottom Line: I “doubt” Robin Williams can get much funnier.

Directed by: Chris Columbus
Screenplay by: Randi Mayem Singer and Leslie Dixon
Based on: “Alias Madame Doubtfire” by Anne Fine
Daniel Hillard: Robin Williams
“Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire”: Robin Williams
Miranda Hillard: Sally Field
Lydia Hillard: Lisa Jakub
Chris Hillard: Matthew Lawrence
Natalie Hillard: Mara Wilson
Stu Denmeyer: Pierce Brosnan
Also Starring: Anne Haney, Harvey Fierstein, Martin Mull, Polly Holliday, Robert Prosky, Scott Capurro, Todd Williams

Distributed by 20th Century Fox on November 24, 1993. Produced in English by the United States and the United Kingdom. Runs 125 mins. Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for some sexual references.

Mrs. Doubtfire was watched on January 26, 2013.

“Look, Natty. That’s called liposuction.” –Mrs. Doubtfire (Robin Williams)

Robin Williams is an exceedingly talented actor. That’s difficult to deny. Williams was one of only 20(!) freshmen accepted into the Juilliard School in 1973; he dropped out in 1976, went on to stand-up comedy the following year, and then to his first feature film role in 1980. In 1997, Williams accepted his long-delayed first Academy Award. A supporting role in a drama, not a leading role in a comedy.

What troubles me is his “funny guy” namesake. Yes, Williams has done stand-up comedy, but considering that came before his film career, he could probably be performing just as well in dramas, even science fiction if he had worked at Comic-Con in 1977. He’s also no ordinary actor. You give him a comedy and he won’t grab it from you; he’ll analyze it closely and work out each word to make sure the written humor suits him. Sometimes, Williams can prove himself something of a dyslexic pug and choose projects like Hook and RV, thus acting off of poorly written attempts at humor, and never earning a single laugh. Others, he can sniff out the right bone and read it spot-on.

Mrs. Doubtfire is a prime example of the latter case, gathering some of the actor’s best humor into a comedy. It’s just as much a drama, however, a fact that is equally endearing and delighting. Our story revolves around Daniel, a family man whose life takes a detour when too many people in a single day misinterpret his good intentions. He works as an extravagant voice actor for a children’s cartoon show; when he notices he is voicing a cartoon that puts tobacco use in a blatant light, he decides to spontaneously ad lib a more wholesome message. All while the tiny character’s throat is jammed with a cigarette, unable to talk. It appears this is the umpteenth time he has attempted to make the cartoon…well, wholesome. Those in the studio are sick of him “playing Gandhi,” so he quits his job.

This is on the day of his son’s twelfth birthday. Daniel loves spending time with his three kids, even if it means being a kid. Unfortunately, the results aren’t consistently pleasant. When his wife sees that he has turned an old-fashioned birthday party into a manic romp around the house, sided with zoo animals and rap music, she goes nuts. In fact, she files for divorce. This doesn’t shock him so much as that he only has custody on Saturdays, and he has yet to begin moving in to a new house, yet to find a new job. That much custody, however, does not mean that he can only see his kids once a week. Daniel soon discovers that his ex-wife needs a housekeeper, so he deftly plasters himself into a sexagenarian Brit named Mrs. Doubtfire.

Mrs. Doubtfire was the sixth film directed by Chris Columbus. This is the director of Home Alone and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and most of his other films center on either a family or a child. In fact, out of the fifteen, only two aren’t. One is a fun, musical guilty pleasure known as Rent–which was no less than tied to the electric chair by box office and critics alike. The other, I Love You, Beth Cooper–a summer teen comedy which earned $3 million less than it spent, and had several periodicals hailing it the “worst of the year.”

But even those two films had what the rest of the Columbus filmography exhibits greatly. Each of those two films was based on blatantly R-rated material, but it’s only in Columbus’s style to weigh them at a PG-13. Mrs. Doubtfire, unfortunately, assesses the style in a way that’s quite uneven. This, too, is rated PG-13. It is a family movie, but not in the literal sense that it’s meant for the entire family. Yet much of the movie wants to be so sweet, as if appealing to an audience too young for the film. It even ends on a message that is anything but subtle.

To me, the quiddity of the film is a parable, not a story, nor a series of events. The message is that sometimes, even the most determined human must find the right pair of shoes to take the extra step. It’s deep and accurate, particularly for a film with Williams in an utterly hysterical role. Mrs. Doubtfire is not an entirely realistic movie, but it shows no desire to be anything otherwise.

If you look at the film as a failed attempt at assessing family life, I pity you. If this were an undisturbed, upright representation of a family after a divorce, the charade would have been figured out in no time, and “Mrs. Doubtfire” would be out of the body suit and back into the apartment, unpacking boxes. It’s a sad thought, indeed, because even a viewer can see how much of a gentle, warm “lady,” who–underneath–is simply a harmless, caring man who dearly loves his kids.

“She” doesn’t whistle while she works. Instead, “she” listens to Aerosmith and pounds it out on “her” mop. (Again, the song is “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)”, so in a supposed reality, it would have given “her” right away.) If there’s anything intentionally realistic about the movie, it’s having a good time with it. It’s difficult not to tell that the cast was having a blast, and as far as I’m concerned, anyone with a heart of respectable size should too.

Postscript: I actually went to the house where Mrs. Doubtfire was filmed on a San Francisco bus tour, back in October. I hadn’t seen the movie at the time, but now I consider it a bragging right. Oh, and the house actually IS on 2640 Steiner Street!


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