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‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ (PG-13)By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 26, 1993
In the 15 years since "Mork and Mindy," Robin Williams has played the witty manchild so often, he's turned into a cliche. It has worked because he's transcendentally funny. But instead of showcase movies -- in which he's prominently featured -- he's starting to get Houdini ordeals. Nowadays, it seems, he's constantly forced to improvise his way out of mediocrity.
"Mrs. Doubtfire," the latest film by director Chris Columbus, tightens the straitjacket. Williams has to break out of a second-rate "Tootsie" imitation, ankles clamped in pathos and face covered in latex. He pulls it off in the end, but it's not pretty.
A peripatetically employed house husband, Williams lives for his children -- but at the cost of his marriage to Sally Field. He's with them every waking hour. He rents zoo animals for their birthday parties. He jumps on trampolines with them. He raps with them. Naturally, he quips in tongues. He's almost pathologically sensitive.
But he doesn't do windows -- or anything else in the house. When he gets work (doing funny voices for cartoons), he loses it. And when adult problems come up, he doesn't want to hear them. That's why ambitious architect Field (a real grown-up) is suing for divorce.
After he gets the marital heave-ho, Williams is denied joint custody by the judge until he gets a job and a decent home. For now, it's Saturday visits with the kids only. As Williams tells the judge, this is like being denied oxygen. He'll do anything to get back with his kids.
Which is presumably why -- when Field advertises for a housekeeper -- he disguises himself as a Scottish no-nonsense nanny called Mrs. Doubtfire and goes for it. Thank goodness he has a brother (Harvey Fierstein) who specializes in makeup.
Before I knew anything about the movie, I saw a preview of "Mrs. Doubtfire," which opened with an unidentified shot of Williams as Mrs. D. "Oh look," I thought, "Robin Williams playing a woman." Even if Field doesn't recognize her husband of 14 years, it's clear she's dealing with a wax museum escapee. This isn't a disguise, it's extra cheese.
Field swallows the whole thing and hires Mrs. D. It doesn't take long before Mary McPoppins is charming Mom and the kids. Mrs. D's a hoot, of course. Her late husband's idea of foreplay, she confides to Field, was "Ethel, brace yourself!"
But there's trouble in New Paradise, when Pierce Brosnan (an old flame of Field's) comes back to reheat the past. There's further trouble when the non-drag Williams finagles a power-dinner date with TV station head Robert Prosky to discuss hosting a children's program about dinosaurs. It happens to be the same night Mrs. Doubtfire is supposed to go out to dinner with the family and Brosnan. And wouldn't ya know, both dates are in the same restaurant.
It's time for comic double duty, as Williams tears from table to table, changing wigs and falsies in the ladies room, rushing through the kitchen, switching from manly banter with Prosky to falsetto chatter with Field and family. It's Robin Williams time, the kind that most people will enjoy. But in this movie, it comes far too late.
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