Pop Culture

Voting for Robin Williams — sometimes

Here’s something not to do: watching lots of Robin Williams movies back to back to back, trying to sort through the good from the bad. The scale tips way over to the “you’re screwed” side of that balance, and by the time you’re finished you’ll have the man leaping around your brain. And that’s what he’s doing to me right now. He’s in there, waving his arms, howling like a werewolf, kicking the inside of my skull, snorting a Tony Montana-sized pile of cocaine. And then riffing on it. In old lady make-up and a fat suit.

To top off this marathon of soul-crippling cinema, I went to see his new film “Man of the Year.” And wow. It’s crap. Like monumentally unfunny, confused and inept crap. The kind of steaming pile of comedy failure that makes me feel like I just spent two hours in movie jail, that infuriated me enough to shoot the finger at the three “Man Of The Year” billboards I had to drive past on my way home from the screening, that made me want to climb up there with a can of Krylon and word-bubble something like “Rehab here I come!” shooting out of Robin Williams’s bewigged head. I’m too old, of course, to start a new career as a tagger. But there’s the idea, kids, so start your engines. Be creative.

Now, any reasonably thoughtful movie fan who’s endured more than a few Robin Williams films can tell you that he seems to pick scripts that showcase his natural tendency toward two types of deplorable on-screen behavior: manic impishness, a trait that’s aged into a by-the-numbers “wacky characters” schtick he can bust out on talk show couches so the hosts can fake-laugh to it; and crinkly eyed sentimentality so pillowy soft it makes you wish he was going mental and being the wacky characters instead. I already knew all this, but I went ahead and watched a lot of his movies anyway, just to get myself all wound up. “Toys,” “Insomnia,” even his Bizarro-mincing through Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour “Hamlet.”

And what I’ve decided is that bashing him is like playing T-Ball with a five year-old. Not that it ain’t fun to be able to top a friend’s story of unwittingly buying a ticket to “Bicentennial Man” with battle-scarred comments like, “Oh yeah? Well I saw ‘Jack’ AND ‘Jakob The Liar’ AND ‘Patch Adams,’” and then enjoying the sight as they recoil in disgust. But what about when watching a Robin Williams movie isn’t agony?

It happens sometimes, you know.

When he’s actually good
I’m not talking about when he shows up for two minutes in a film that otherwise has nothing to do with him, no matter how entertaining his two minutes may be. As the Out Of Focus Guy in Woody Allen’s “Deconstructing Harry,” Williams just had to stand there and be a clever special effect.  His cameo in the ’90s thriller “Dead Again” was essentially the same thing, a moment for you to sit in the theater and go, “Oh hey, it’s Robin Williams. I didn’t know he was in this.”

And I’m really not talking about “Aladdin,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Dead Poets Society” or “Good Morning Vietnam.” I know millions of people love those movies. But I’m not one of those people. And, yes, he was nominated for Academy Awards for the last two. But those dopes will give a statue to anything. “Crash” did win best picture last year, remember.

I’m talking about anomalies like “Popeye,” the widely hated and unfondly remembered flop that earns an entire chapter in the excellently entertaining book by James Robert Parish, “Fiasco,” all about grand-scale Hollywood disasters. Robert Altman’s weirdest movie after “Three Women,” “Popeye” is out-of-control strange, a self-contained world of aggressive oddity, full of go-nowhere plotlines, musical numbers devoted to Bluto’s girth (“He’s Large”) and the crankiest demeanor ever slapped onto the face of a “family” film. It’s not a good movie, but it’s never not fascinating.

And it’s Williams re-routing of his own tics, hammering them into Popeye-shape, and abandoning himself into the iconic cartoon character that’s most interesting to witness. Apparently the prosthetic forearms caused him a lot of physical pain. Could that have been the key? Like when a smoker snaps a rubber band on their wrist when they want a cigarette? Or when the murderous drifter in Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” declares of his final annoying victim that she would have been a good woman if someone had been around to shoot her every minute of her life? I hate to wish pain on anyone, but maybe if that George Washington wig had been clamped down a little tighter…

Toning it down helpsThen there’s “The World According To Garp” and “Jumanji,” two very different movies where Williams is the lone center of bewildered calm in a storm of chaotic humans (“Garp”) and chaotic storybook creatures (“Jumanji”). Because everything else in those films is a maelstrom — of characters cutting their own tongues off or running from giant computer-generated animals — Williams was directed toward or knew instinctively to tone it way down.

He also transformed physically for “Garp,” removing what seems to be about 20 square yards of of dense body hair, all the way down to the knuckles. That’s the moral equivalent of De Niro gaining 50 pounds to play Jake LaMotta. Did they shoot all his smooth-chested and shirtless scenes on the same day? Before noon? Most Williams haters I know will cop to liking “Garp” because it’s full of freaks. And “Jumanji” is a blast, the Sara Lee cake of movies. Nobody doesn’t like it.

“Moscow On the Hudson” is aging well enough, still able to trade on the sweetness of William’s fish-out-of-water Russian defector. But “The Fisher King” appears more and more wrinkly and flabby with every passing year, its late 1980s/early1990s rebel attitude looking slightly less cool than Andrew McCarthy’s outfits in “Less Than Zero” and Williams’ rapid-fire couch-chewing more and more exhausting and assault-like.

I watched it again recently and have come to the decision that it’s “Good Morning Vietnam” with more beard and body odor. You get the idea that he and Terry Gilliam had a great time when the cameras stopped rolling. In fact, you get the idea that Williams makes lots of people happy off camera most of the time, like he’s hired to be the director’s buddy. You have to wonder what someone like Stanley Kubrick could have done to Williams. Or even a hit-and-miss dictator like Lars Von Trier.

Learning to stretchMark Romanek’s “One Hour Photo” seems like the kind of film anti-Williams arthouse audiences would respond to positively and longtime fans would look at and think, “Yeah, I hate this movie.” It’s art-directed to hell and back, sterilizing everything in its fluorescently lit path, including Williams’ performance. He’s tight-lipped and clamped down tightly as a silently psychopathic drugstore film processor who surveillance-stalks a suburban family, everything human, including the hair on his head, bleached out and erased. It’s one-note, but at least it’s a note he hadn’t seen fit to play before then. “American Psycho” did it first and Michael Haneke’s “Cache” did it last, both of them better, but you have to give it — and its star — points for making the effort.

Did I say the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences was a bunch of dopes? They still are, but Williams more or less deserved his best supporting actor Oscar for “Good Will Hunting.” Less because of the to-the-tipping-point sentimentality of the final act, and more because of the open-hearted and mournful nature of Williams performance up to that point. I spent the whole film waiting for him to wink his wee widdle twinkly eyes at the camera, demanding I succumb to the hysterical phenomenon of the “male weepie,” but he didn’t. The script put some doofus words in his mouth, but he held them up higher than they deserved and sold them all.

He tried that again as a depressed gay radio host who befriends a mysterious child in this year’s indie “The Night Listener,” but that movie was such a wacked-out mess of post-JT Leroy paranoia that his efforts sank with the rest of the film.

So “Man of the Year” will come and go, hopefully unseen (like it matters — he and Barry Levinson use $50s for kindling) And it’ll be one more awful offering from an actor who knows better because he’s done better. And then later he’ll surprise us again, somewhere down the road. I’m guessing it won’t be in “Mrs. Doubtfire 2.” But somewhere.

Dave White is film critic for Movies.com and the author of “Exile In Guyville.” Find him online at .