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‘Renaissance Man’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 03, 1994

Director Penny Marshall's creative thermostat seems to have only two settings: Laugh and Cry. In "Renaissance Man," an extended, bear-hugging session between teacher Danny DeVito and the U.S. Army dunces he's hired to rehabilitate, she jerks that dial one way, then the other. The audience is forced to giggle, bawl -- and giggle again -- with Pavlovian regularity.

But this is not brilliant emotional manipulation. It's just the same sort of audience pandering Marshall picked up from all those years co-starring in "Laverne and Shirley."

In the movie, failed, middle-aged advertising executive DeVito finds himself filing for unemployment. Uncle Sam offers him a job he can't afford to refuse: teaching the Army equivalent of freshman English to eight sullen, slow-learning recruits.

After learning about his students' individual dreams and aspirations (rigged by screenwriter Jim Burnstein to be realized in time for the ending), DeVito gently jogs their minds with "Hamlet." Slowly but formulaically, they warm up to the Bard dude. "Damn!" says one, when he hears how Hamlet's father gets killed and his mother marries her murderous brother-in-law.

While DeVito teaches the poetic handbook of life to his vulnerable charges, drill sergeant Gregory Hines (a pushover disguised as a leatherneck) forces the deadbeats through boot camp. A clash between teachers is inevitable. In the cheesiest contrivance of all, DeVito makes fun of Hines's obsession with punctuality, only to face the music from his aspiring scholars when he shows up to class late.

In this kind of movie, everybody learns. The students (including "A Different World's" Kardeem Hardison, Lilo Brancato Jr. from "A Bronx Tale," Stacey Dash, Kahlil "Juice" Kain and Mark "Marky Mark" Wahlberg) earn their renaissance stripes (kill; dig iambic pentameter). DeVito, too, has his moral homework. In the usual Hollywood family-deficiency subplot, he's divorced and too obsessed with his work and himself to show love to his daughter (Alana Ubach). All the little girl wants is a plane ticket to Mexico, so she can join her astronomy-club pals. A little love, a few hugs, some air fare dough. Come on, Danno, ya lugnut, get with the program.

Given the cringe-inducing, life-affirmative journey he has to undertake, DeVito is, at least, entertaining and reasonably persuasive as an exasperated, fallen yuppie. Although his splay-legged, vertiginous attempt to rappel down an assault tower tests the gag-o-meter, he is amusing. But there are limits to what he can do, especially in a movie in which his students perform a goofy, well-rehearsed "Hamlet rap" for his pleasure.

This Touchstone Pictures movie, which also features James Remar and Cliff Robertson (the two most understanding men in uniform ever on screen), could easily become a TV series. In this spinoff, "Fame"-in-fatigues show, friendly teacher DeVito (to be replaced by Edward James Olmos) would teach weekly sensitivity and self-esteem classes to hordes of crewcut misfits. And if that horrifying development ever takes place, I'd advise you to follow the Marshall plan: Turn the dial.

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