'Mrs. Doubtfire': too sentimental, but it's got Williams

I recently rode 18 floors in an elevator with Robin Williams and when I got out I felt like I'd just been in the world's smallest nightclub and I owed somebody a $24 cover charge.

He may be the most hysterical man in the world since Laurel and Hardy dined alone. Who is funnier? He simply generates comedy as if it were CO2, a roaringly spontaneous gush of voices, faces, sounds, free-association puns and wordplay, dances, impression, snorts, burps and gurgles. And when his new picture, "Mrs. Doubtfire," just stops being a movie and watches him go, it can bust your gut and have you gulping your way through oxygen debt.


Fortunately for Twentieth-Century Fox, l'essence du Williams breaks through enough to pretty much guarantee billions and billions of dollars at the box office, but that's not quite enough to dispel the suspicion that the movie could have been a lot better.

Its flaw is conspicuous sentimentality as, in his nonexplosive moments, Williams plays a hangdog actor named Daniel Hillard so bursting with human compassion and the capacity to love he's like a chocolate-covered cherry. Politically correct and chronically immature -- the movie opens with him making a big stink at a dubbing session when he tries to insert an anti-smoking message into a cartoon and getting fired for the trouble -- he's also almost worthless at what used to be called men's work: you know, making a living, providing financial security for his wife and three children, living up to responsibility.


Thus his wife -- Sally Field, still amazed that we like her -- has become the primary wage earner; the final blow is struck when this child-man overdoes one of his kid's birthdays and utterly destroys the household that he does so little to support. She kicks him out and begins legal proceedings, the gist of which is that he can only see his beloved children once a week.

This he cannot take. Soon, with the connivance of his makeup artist brother (Harvey Fierstein), he's done a surprisingly convincing job disguising himself as a 65-year-old Scotswoman named Iphegenia Doubtfire and gotten the job as housekeeper in his own house. That's the gist: Williams in drag with a voice that sounds as if it's been pickled in Glenfiddich, gleefully subverting "old-woman" expectations with a raucous edge. A mugger tries to steal his purse: He knees him in the groin. When he cleans house he shakes his booty to the melodies of rock and roll (a great riff).

But the most continuously amusing line watches as he attempts to sabotage his wife's burgeoning love affair with an ex-boyfriend (Pierce Brosnan). All being fair in love and war, Mrs. Doubtfire plays extremely dirty, ruthlessly extinguishing the flame of eros between these two innocent characters. It might have been more resonant if Brosnan's character had been a rotter, however; as it is, one can't help suspecting this family might have been better off with the decent, responsible Irishman at the helm.

The subtext appears derived from Dustin Hoffman's "Tootsie": that the hero is much more interesting as a woman than he was as a man. Moreover, he grows from the experience. Suddenly becoming his children's primary caretaker, he takes on the responsibilities that his childish male self always ignored; he ceases merely entertaining the family and becomes a part of it.

Alas, there are far too many manipulative strokes, so the story is always breaking apart on the shoals of contrivance. Twice, it uses variations on the quick-change theme, when he's got to leap back and forth between his Mrs. Doubtfire and his Daniel Hillard selves, when once was already too much. This particularly undercuts the movie's elongated ending, in which he dives in and out of makeup in an endless restaurant sequence, romancing his family as a woman and his perspective new boss (Robert Prosky) as a man. The more strenuous it gets, the less funny.

But when it's funny, it's funny.


"Mrs. Doubtfire"


Starring Robin Williams

Directed by Chris Columbus

Released by Twentieth-Century Fox

Rated PG-13