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Mr. Movie: Robin Williams, but seriously

Multi-talented Robin Williams joined a sad list of actors who died too young. He was only 64. He went from struggling stand-up comic to TV star of Mork and Mindy (remember “nanu-nanu”?) to lots of good films. 


His movies are divided between those where the director runs the show and those where Williams appears to be in charge. The latter scenario results in horrors like Patch Adams, Shakes The Clown and Death To Smoochy, all agonizingly bad.


But Williams could act up a storm when a good director reined him in. We tend to remember what a good story Good Will Hunting (1997) is, and that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck won an Oscar for their screenplay. We tend to forget that Robin Williams won the only acting Oscar for that film, playing the professor who nurtures the janitor-mathematical genius in his school.            


In 2002, Williams was in two movies that showcased his considerable acting talents. In Insomnia, he is a clever killer always one step ahead of the cops, and he holds his own against Al Pacino. Williams is the whole show in One-Hour Photo. He is a photo tech in a big discount store with no family (and no life) and he “adopts” a local family whose pictures he develops. He is a truly creepy character and it is his underplayed, in-control acting that makes this engine go.


Williams’ first big role was as the title character in the marvelous The World According To Garp (1982). The 30-year-old standup comic seemed a very weird choice for this role at the time, but he is splendid in a difficult part. In fact, Williams is one of the saner characters in a film featuring a cross-dressing tight end and a mother who becomes spokesperson for liberal causes while in her nurse’s uniform.


Awakenings (1990) is based on the true story of catatonic patients who are miraculously returned to normal life by a controversial experimental drug. I thought Williams’ portrayal of the doctor carried this interesting movie.       


Williams is excellent as an ingenious disc jockey for the troops in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) and as a funny Russian defector in Moscow On The Hudson (1984).


And the exception that proves the rule is when Williams was given his head as the voice of the genie in Aladdin (1992). His mostly ad-libbed lines are awfully funny and what makes the film so much fun.


If you can buy Robin in drag as a housekeeper in his former wife’s home, you might like Mrs. Doubtfire (1993). The story is that he does this for access to his children after a bitter divorce. And that somehow nobody notices. You can decide if this charade really works.


The handful of Williams films that came out after his death in 2013 are, frankly, dogs.


All of the movies in this column are available on DVD. The complete Mork And Mindy series is also available. All but One-Hour Photo (grown-ups only) are suitable for 10 and up.