Da Vinci. Now there's a renaissance man. But . . . DeVito?
In fact, it is significant of the confusion that attends "Renaissance Man" that it turns out not to be about either the renaissance or men or even the concept of the Renaissance Man, a polymath like Da Vinci equally adept at a great number of disciplines.
"Renaissance Man" is adept at no discipline, least of all story discipline. It stumbles drunkenly along, almost completely unguided by a central idea, changing courses, modes, themes and goals almost promiscuously. It seems to have but one central conceit: Danny DeVito is cute.
No, he's not. And any movie built around such a concept, as this one is, risks disintegration, which "Renaissance Man" achieves almost as soon as it begins.
DeVito plays a Detroit advertising man, once a star, who has fallen on hard times. Embittered and out of work, owing alimony and child support, he throws himself on the mercy of the Michigan State Employment System, which in its cruel and oh-so-ironic fashion comes up with the job from hell. An ex-peace demonstrator schooled in the New Left anti-military pieties of the '60s, he's to go work for the Department of Defense, hired to teach some vague skill known as "comprehension" to a crew of backward basic-training candidates who just can't get with the program.
It's "Stripes" with a short fat guy!
He shows up on the first day of class with -- get this -- no idea, no curriculum, no goal, no mission statement, nothing but his frazzled wits. Ridiculous. Unbelievable. The Department of Defense, particularly the United States Army, does everything by the book and likewise has a book for everything. No one, not even Delta Force, gets to just make things up!
But the absurdities are just beginning. Realizing that motivational bullfeathers will get him just so far, DeVito's Bill Rago determines that the "comprehension" that is his goal can best be achieved by teaching a free-form new school-type seminar on . . . "Hamlet." Oh, that'll come in handy when the M-60 jams in a bloody alley firefight in Port-au-Prince!
The movie can never solve this central dilemma. It can in no way TC relate the meanings of "Hamlet" to any aspect of military service, and it fails utterly to follow through on the thrust of its premise. I suppose at some level it's an endorsement of the noble theory of liberal education -- that in exposing students to the broad range of their culture at its most refined and vigorous you make them more capable of dealing with the world at large. But the movie needs to demonstrate the practical consequences of such a course, a way in which "Hamlet" helps these young people other than generic touchy-feely self-esteem. It completely fumbles this opportunity and the whole "Hamlet" plot just drifts into nothingness.
In fact, in the end not even the Army is interested in "Hamlet," and a weird and unconvincing final twist has DeVito giving his charges their "Hamlet" orals in defiance of Army mandates, knowing that if they flunk the test they'll be drummed out of the service. Huh? That's a stroke that never makes much sense. The Army would fire a light weapons infantryman because he got Rosencrantz and Guildenstern mixed up? I don't think so.
It gets stranger: at one point, for reasons incomprehensible to anyone except director Penny Marshall, one of the charges delivers the young king's great soliloquy on St. Crispin's Day from "Henry V." It's the film's best scene, but it has no particular meaning, except insofar as it moves DeVito, an accidental witness, and becomes a part of his learning curve, enabling him to see the nobility in the profession of arms.
But that's not facing the elephant. He's moved by Shakespeare? Let him look upon the endless stone gardens of Arlington or Gettysburg and learn something about those values, as bought and paid for in blood by Americans, not an English expansionist of the 16th century. Let him confront in actuality what war is, and what these young men (and one young woman) are being trained to face.
The Army, ever mindful of the public relations impact of a Hollywood movie, has conveniently ponied up Fort Jackson, S.C., for the filmmakers' use, but hasn't required much verisimilitude in return. There's too much fish-out-of-water stuff as DeVito bumbles around the post, breaking up formations, wisecracking to drill instructors -- notably Gregory Hines in a one-dimensional role -- and generally mugging for the camera. A director who'd spent even a little bit of time in the service would understand how preposterous this was. There's no respect or comprehension whatsoever for the culture of the military.
In most other respects, the film is achingly conventional. The "class" of misfits that comes to DeVito could have gone to Sydney Poitier in "To Sir With Love"; each is colorfully dysfunctional and somehow, in the ancient and unlikely way of movies about teaching, they teach him as much as he teaches them. The rapper Marky Mark, appearing under the name Mark Wahlberg, is probably the best, but all are adequate in inadequate roles.
At some point, "Renaissance Man" thinks it's about character. It teaches the sternest of basic training lessons -- that each man must be responsible for himself and to his colleagues, and that there can be no excuses or different standards. It also means to show the positive value of harsh but just discipline and the long-term benefits in surrendering one's ego to the needs of a larger organization.
But all these lessons are coarsened and diluted by mawkishness, predictability and cheesy manipulation. Even though it's set on an Army post, "Renaissance Man" itself never gets with the program.
Starring Danny DeVito and James Remar
Directed by Penny Marshall
Released by Touchstone