That Robin Williams is a phenomenally gifted comic, a sort of one-of-a-kind comedy mushroom cloud, has never been a subject for debate. Instead, the question for Hollywood has always been: What can we do with this guy? How can we make him what, despite his enormous popularity, he has never been: a true box office star?
The advance press has suggested that his new movie, "Good Morning, Vietnam," will change all that. And the movie does live up to part of its billing: It gives us a lot of Robin Williams. But it hardly delivers on the promise of giving us the pure, undiluted Williams -- Williams at his best. What's more, it's not even close to being his best movie. It's not even close to being good.
Set in Saigon in 1965, the movie introduces us to Adrian Cronauer (Williams), an Air Force disc jockey who'sbeen flown in from another assignment to a post at the center of the escalating conflict in Vietnam. The character is based on a real deejay who ran afoul of the military authorities in Saigon because of the on-air liberties he took with regard to matters of style and language and musical taste.
Basically, the premise of the movie is the same as that of practically every other military comedy ever made. Cronauer is like Hawkeye in Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H" or the Bill Murray character in "Stripes." From the moment he eases his chair up to the microphone, all pretense of military decorum and respect for authority is abandoned. With the headphones slapped over his ears, Cronauer goes over the heads of his superiors and speaks directly to the soldiers. Instead of giving them soothing radio pablum, he shakes them up, ragging on the weather and the civilian authorities and giving voice to all the concerns of the men in the trenches.
This sounds like a first-rate subject for a comedy, and it is. But it goes wrong in ways that are maddeningly obvious. And most of the blame for bungling the film has to fall into director Barry Levinson's lap (with a portion reserved for screen writer Mitch Markowitz). But some of it has to go to Williams.
It's not that he's actually bad here. He gives Cronauer's radio monologues his usual caffeinated, channel-switching delivery, but he doesn't seem as relaxed and confident as he seemed in pictures like "The Survivors" and "Moscow on the Hudson." He's pushing here -- as he did in "Garp" -- and at times, his face looks pinched from the exertion.
Also, the material itself -- some of which was scripted and some of which was mined from Williams' improvisations -- seems tired and lackluster: He's straining so hard partly because he's peddling stale goods. And because Williams, who's a kind of walking compendium of pop-culture references and whose comedy depends on being up to the minute, can allude only to events up to '65, it feels as if he's working with only half his brain.
At the same time, Williams' free-associative riffs seem whoppingly anachronistic. The attitudes toward gays, toward blacks, toward the war itself, come across as too hip for 1965. And so the film's perspective has a kind of faux hipness -- the hipness that comes with hindsight.
But if we don't think that Nixon jokes and teaching the Vietnamese how to cuss, American style, are riotously funny, not to worry. The function of the supporting cast -- which includes Forest Whitaker and Bruno Kirby -- is either to set up Cronauer's jokes or to laugh at them, and they do our laughing for us.
Once Levinson establishes that Cronauer is an embattled genius, the movie loses whatever starch it might have had. And after Cronauer is temporarily suspended for reporting a news story that hadn't first been screened by the military, the film's tone shifts from irreverent to serious and suddenly the subject becomes "How I Went to Vietnam and Had My Consciousness Raised."
All this seems compulsory and condescending. And the flat, soft-focus view Levinson takes in shooting these scenes, with their concentration on the quaint Vietnamese villagers, comes across as too uncomplicated, too tidy. Looking at Levinson's shots of both the countryside and the city, you can't help but think that the worst has happened -- that he's turned Vietnam into a suburb.
What you end up with in "Good Morning, Vietnam" is a peculiar hybrid -- a Robin Williams concert movie welded clumsily onto the plot from an old Danny Kaye picture. And neither half works.
Visually, the movie is stultifyingly uninteresting, especially when Williams is stuck in his chair monologuing into the mike. The director tries to have him move around as much as possible, but what can't be disguised is that the Cronauer character is designed primarily to provide an occasion for Williams to frolic, and that the movie Levinson has built around him is embarrassingly slipshod and uninspired.
If the film were merely a playground for Williams -- and if Williams were in good form -- it might have been tolerable. But when Williams has to play a scene in which Cronauer makes contact with real soldiers and is forced to realize just how much he means to them and how petty his battles have been compared with the hardships endured by these brave boys, then you think, "Enough!" It's one thing to want to turn Robin Williams into a star -- it's another to turn him into Bob Hope.
Good Morning, Vietnam, at area theaters, is rated R, mostly for its use of strong language.