Robin Williams, who reprises his bully role as Teddy Roosevelt in the new sequel Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, is lucky to be alive. An addict who partied with Belushi, he relapsed on booze after making five movies in 2006, went to rehab, saw his brother die of heart trouble, then had his own heart valve replaced with a cow's. "I'm grazing more," he reports, apparently healthy again. It would be horrific for movies to lose him, but he's simply got to pay more attention to quality control. Most of his early films are good; of his later films, not so many. He's squandered his gift, and he needs to make only good flicks in all the days that remain. Since your days are numbered too, make the most of your time with this list of the top five Williams movies you must see, and the five you must miss.
Aladdin is powered by what must be the most profitable performance in film history: for $75,000, Williams created a genie hero that generated profits of about a billion bucks (in today's dollars). It's a landmark of animation, but what makes it work is Williams' improv genius. Instead of laboriously crafting gags for an animated character, they mostly let Williams simply riff, impersonating whatever characters came into his overpopulated head, and then animated the best of the resultant soundtrack. Williams was on a kid-vid kick at the time: He popped into the studio to voice the Genie in between stints on the set of the youth-themed Hook and Toys. They flopped, but all that kid energy made Aladdin soar. Chuck Jones of Warner Bros. fame told me this is the funniest cartoon he ever saw (though he was being characteristically self-deprecating about his own).
The script that created Ben Affleck's and Matt Damon's careers is pretty good, and Gus Van Sant's uncannily sensitive directing saved his, but don't overlook the quietly titanic achievement of Williams as the soft-spoken therapist who breaks through to the hard-nosed math genius in Good Will Hunting. Typecast as a clown with multiple personality disorder, Williams dives deep into the inward nature of the grieving widower who connects with the brash, bratty prodigy. You could get a suntan from his kindness, but you feel the chill tug of his darkness. He's done nice-guy roles so badly so often, it's amazing to see him pull this one off so flawlessly.
I've interviewed Oliver Sacks, the best-selling neurologist author whose amazing true story of zombie-like patients revived by the drug L-Dopa inspired Awakenings, and Williams impressively captures Sacks' shy magnetism, owlish scholarliness, kindly demeanor, and odd manner of speaking. (He omits Sacks' burning ambition and mild vanity.) A truly moving movie, and a smart, tricky performance.
Good Morning, Vietnam is sort of a cross between Aladdin and a regular, scripted Robin Williams movie. More realistically than usual, he plays a rounded human character, based on a real guy sent to be an Air Force radio DJ in 1965 during the war. And more freely than anywhere except his concerts and Aladdin, he does his inimitable spritz-of-consciousness improv comedy thing. His drama school profs tried to break him of his improv monologue habit. Good thing they failed.
I was tempted to give the fifth good-movie slot to Dead Poets Society, a darn good film that made his reputation in kindly, eccentric, avuncular teacher roles. But since he rehashed that role too shoddily too often, I reject it in favor of a less-typical role in Insomnia, a soft-spoken Alaskan mystery writer more mysterious than his fictions, and under suspicion in a grisly real-life murder case. He's a match for Al Pacino as a sleepless cop on the case, and it's interesting to see Williams use his face and body language differently than he habitually does -- not to beg us for laughs or tears, but to keep us guessing. His face is a little lumpy, not quite beautiful, increasingly homely with age; ordinarily, he uses this to make himself likeable in obvious ways. It's refreshing to see him make himself unknowable and remote.
1. Patch Adams
He's actually done even worse movies than Patch Adams, but this schmaltz-mongering performance is so definitive of what's wrong with his judgment, it deserves pride of place in his hall of shame. Apparently there really is a doctor named Patch Adams who cheers up kids dying of cancer by clowning around, but no atom of reality attaches to this hideous fantasy comedy. If I were in chemotherapy and this Patch Adams came by, I'd yank my IV tubes and jump out the window. Williams' Juilliard classmate Christopher Reeve told me Williams did crack him up when he was first paralyzed by walking into his hospital room comically impersonating a German physician named Krankenhutz or something. In real life, it worked. As a movie, it has no right to live.
License to Wed is so horrifyingly bad there's a kind of heroic quality to it. Not just any movie can earn a staggering eight percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. As the reverend who requires Mandy Moore and John Krasinski to knuckle under to his bizarre premarital boot camp regime, Williams is ridiculously offensive, bugging the premarital bedroom, forcing cringe-making intimate confessions out of the bride, behaving like Robert De Niro in Meet the Parents with some of the monomaniacal drive of Robert De Niro in Cape Fear. So sentimental, yet so psychotic!
Usually, when Williams blows it, he does so by doing the dumb, unambitious, crowd-pleasing thing. Bicentennial Man is proof that he can blow it in a movie with Isaac Asimov ideas behind it and the potential to be genuinely interesting -- as long as he shamelessly panders and makes it as dull as humanly possible. Make that as dull as robotically possible: Williams plays a household robot owned by several generations of alleged humans in the Bay Area. After many boring years, he yearns to be free. So does the audience.
Williams has no fire as a Chicago fireman who retires to run a third-rate Club Med-like resort in the Caribbean in Club Paradise. Auteur Harold Ramis is trying to rebottle the lightning of Caddyshack, which had another comic, Rodney Dangerfield. But the skits aren't stitched together at all, and Williams tries and fails to compete with co-stars like Eugene Levy, who are better at sketch comedy. It's a purgatorial mess.
A dozen years before Brad Pitt's Benjamin Button, Williams played a guy with a peculiar aging disease in Francis Ford Coppola's Jack. He's ten inside, but his body is 40. Lots of movies have done cool things with such predicaments, from Big to Freaky Friday to Coppola's own Peggy Sue Got Married. This movie imagines only stupid consequences: boy/man Williams sits in a kid-size desk and it breaks, his weight makes his tree house fall down the tree. His acting is stupid, too, damp and needy, sappy and pushy.