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'Renaissance Man' (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 03, 1994

"Renaissance Man," Penny Marshall's intellectually ambitious new comedy, is an extravagant and all-too-familiar Hollywood contradiction -- a movie that celebrates the life of the mind and the uniqueness of the individual but does so in glib slogans and is, itself, a sort of knockoff.

Set in an Army training camp near Detroit, where an ex-advertising man named Bill Rago (Danny DeVito) is reduced to taking a job teaching underachieving recruits, "Renaissance Man" comes across at first glance as little more than an olive-drab reincarnation of "Dead Poets Society." And that holds true for the second and third glance too.

Ostensibly based on the real-life experiences of Michigan screenwriter Jim Burnstein, the film picks up Rago's life just as his downward career path lands him in front of a ragged bunch of would-be warriors who are an IQ point or two shy of being all that they can be.

From the beginning, it's clear that Rago's task -- to improve their "basic comprehension" -- is mighty. And most of the first part of the film is spent scoring cheap points off this sad-sack group's lack of brainpower.

Still, this squad's stupidity is irresistible. Squeezed into their desks, they seem happy in their cluelessness, bantering and dissing each other cutely without a trace of genuine conflict, like some slightly older, racially balanced incarnation of the Little Rascals. They're not troublemakers or bad eggs, and, from all evidence, they want desperately to be soldiers and fight for Uncle Sam. It's just that they're a trifle slow, and if Rago can't help them make progress, they'll wash out and be tossed back into the hell of their real lives.

It's appropriate that Marshall has chosen an adman for her main character, because that's the way she works here, in little message nuggets that she packages and sells to her audience. Early on, the recruits are marched in and introduced in the same easy shorthand fashion that the infantrymen were in old war films. There's the inner-city kid with the thick Brooklyn accent, the quiet black football star, a couple of Midwestern rubes and the like, each one proudly and generically representing his stereotype.

In addition, like contestants in the Miss America pageant, each recruit's past is shaped around a relevant social issue. (One is beaten by his father, another forgotten by her prostitute mother etc.) Before Rago gets to know his squad, he grouses and harrumphs, making sure that everyone knows he hates every minute of this khaki purgatory. But after the kids read their bios in class, each one telling a tale of heartache, poverty, neglect and worse, Rago changes his tune.

At this point, there is a shift in the film's tone as well, eliminating the last vestige of dramatic conflict. And when Rago decides that the best way to rescue these borderline illiterates is to teach them "Hamlet," the movie loses all contact with reality.

The rest of the picture is spent reducing Shakespeare to the literary equivalent of fast food, while at the same time demonstrating how being smart builds character. "Victory," says DeVito, pointing to his head, "begins here."

Marshall scores these facile intellectual points with her usual proficiency, but her material here is far too thin for the audience not to see through it. Also, there's no flow to her storytelling; we're bumped along from one hard-sell episode to another. In some scenes -- like the one in which one of the recruits is carried off to jail for selling crack back home -- her tear-jerking is merciless. And from the shameless way she casts her characters as symbolic victims you'd think that the film was an act of penance.

Still, finding uplift in tragedy is Marshall's specialty -- and she's gotten damn good at it. (She's the only woman filmmaker with two pictures -- "Big" and "A League of Their Own" -- to earn more than $100 million.) This time, though, her manipulations throw us out of the story rather than pull us in.

There are so many positive social messages flying around here that it's almost impossible to keep track of them. And Marshall's cast of charming young actors suffers most. In one scene, Stacey Dash (who is sweetly appealing as the only girl in the class) is asked to sum up what she has learned from playing her character, Ophelia, and she answers, "Suicide is not the way."

As strange as it sounds, DeVito's performance is about the only aspect of the film that isn't wholly fraudulent, if only because his typical feisty abrasiveness protects him from sinking to the level of Marshall's mawkishness. Still, those who found his Penguin repellent in "Batman II" will spit up their popcorn over his Gertrude. "Hamlet" may be the most indestructible of Shakespeare's plays, but "Renaissance Man" pounds it into politically correct dust.

Renaissance Man is rated PG-13.

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