Thursday, September 03, 2009

Mrs. Doubtfire, 1993

When my brother and I were young, Mrs. Doubtfire was one of our favorite movies. It remains the sort of film that just has that homey feeling to it. I'm always pleased that whenever I mention the movie people in my age group or a bit younger will readily smile and recount their favorite quotation.

The success of this film is largely due to Robin Williams' absolute manic comedic genius. It should come as no surprise that most of the incredible jokes were improvised. And he has a fantastic supporting cast that includes Sally Field, Pierce Brosnan, and Harvey Fierstein. Who can forget the musical makeover montage when Williams does Barbra Streisand?

This film is a product of the glorious decade that was the 1990s. Our parents had jobs, maybe they had even managed to set aside a nice trust for our college or our first car. Mostly, they were still married, aside from a few kids we knew who split time between their Mom's house and their Dad's depressing apartment. The future seemed bright, and there was just a hint of the inevitable tarnish to come. Mrs. Doubtfire is remembered as a comedy. But what it should be remembered for, aside from the multitudes of comedic moments, is a sensitive comment on marriage, divorce, and parenting.

Daniel Hillard is a down-home actor Dad who barely makes money doing voice-overs. When he throws a birthday party for his flunking kid, and his uber-successful interior designer wife comes home to find a petting zoo in her house and a goat who ate her begonias, well. That's the last straw. She gets a divorce and because Daniel doesn't have a steady job or an apartment, she also gets full custody. In frustration Daniel comes up with the scheme that he'll apply to be his wife's new housekeeper with the help of his makeup-artist brother. Ultimately, he just wants to see his kids.

Hilarity ensues, involving a "run-by-fruiting," a death by drink ("oh, how awful, your husband was an alcoholic?" "oh no dear, he was hit by a Guinness truck"), a decline to swim ("oh no dear, i think they've outlawed whaling"), and an incredible twenty-minute sequence where Williams constantly shifts between Mrs. Doubtfire and Daniel in one evening at Bridges restaurant.

But the truly intriguing moments of this film are the most personal ones, of course. In a discussion with his ex-wife, Miranda, Daniel learns (undercover as Mrs. Doubtfire) the reason why his wife decided to divorce him. "I didn't like who I was when I was with him," she says. He was always the fun one, and she the bad guy. In the beginning he was great, but the lack of seriousness over time just wore her down. "Did you ever tell him any of this, dear?" But of course she hasn't. There is some incredible, overlooked acting in this scene. For Daniel, it's akin to being at your own funeral and eavesdropping the conversations. It's a heartbreaking moment.

This is tragicomedy at its greatest. There are moments when you have to laugh out loud at the ridiculous situation, but at the same time you want to weep because, yes, divorce is difficult. It's more than difficult. And like any great romantic comedy, Daniel and Miranda really come out on top in this game. It's the perfect ending on a perfect San Francisco street. And maybe that's why I return to this movie over and over again, in hopes that it will give away its secrets, and alert me to a better route to forgiveness.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... This movie has always struck me as incredibly troubling. In the end, the message was that Sally Field's character was expected -- no, required -- to provide the money and stability for the family, but was a terrible person because she wanted a true partnership with a responsible man. After all, how DARE she expect that a man who fathered a number of children take any responsibility for anything other than having fun, fun, fun with them? And how dare anyone expect that Robin William's character care more about his children's security (not to mention his wife) than his ability to ridicule women by overexaggerating and mocking their bodies? At its core, the movie celebrates the man-child and reeks of misogyny.