The thinking behind "Fathers' Day," Ivan Reitman's new comedy, is diabolically obvious: put all-universe funnymen Robin Williams and Billy Crystal on the same screen, and theaters across the country will be rendered oxygen-deprived from laughter.
Hold the calls to 911. "Fathers' Day" is a perfectly pleasant buddy film, but it lacks the merciless, rat-a-tat hilarity that leaves you gasping for air.
Williams and Crystal are not the weaknesses. They could each make balancing the checkbook into high entertainment. Longtime friends and performers on HBO's "Comic Relief," they also have the chemistry of a great comic team, Williams as a combustible, free-associating force of nature, Crystal as desert-dry straight man providing wry comment -- facial and verbal -- on his partner's antics.
They are fun to watch, but -- this has bedeviled both of them in their movie careers -- "Fathers' Day" isn't fast or witty enough to keep up with their comic capabilities. In particular, you keep waiting for Williams to morph his way into orbit, but the screenplay by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, from the French film "Les Comperes," mainly keeps him earthbound. Reitman also overly relies on unfunny physical humor, variously involving head butts, hot coffee and outhouses.
In "Fathers' Day," the comics are both former lovers of Collette, played by a Nastassja Kinski, who is as breathtakingly beautiful as when she appeared in "Tess" in 1979. Collette is now married to Bob (Bruce Greenwood) and is the mother of 16-year-old son Scott (Charlie Hofheimer), a spoiled brat who has disappeared from their Los Angeles home.
Collette manipulates Williams and Crystal into finding Scott by telling each of them (separately) that Scott is his son.
They soon join forces, creating their own variation on "The Odd Couple." Williams is Dale Putney, a barely grounded, understandably underselling avant-garde poet who dabbles in suicide attempts. He's also a bit on the sensitive side, breaking into sobs at the slightest provocation, such as missing his highway exit.
Crystal is Dale's opposite, a hard-nosed, supremely confident L.A. lawyer named Jack Lawrence who prides himself on aplomb and Italian suits and is anxious to keep his third marriage -- this one to Julia Louis-Dreyfus -- intact.
Williams, not the sort you'd entrust with your dry cleaning, let alone your child, is thrilled to help Collette. Crystal is more reluctant. "I don't find people," he initially tells her. "I sue them."
He comes around, though, and eventually, when he and Williams compare photos, they discover they're searching for the same long-lost son. Although decidedly mismatched, they soon take on the affectionate relationship of a married couple, even referring to Scott as "our son."
The movie's underlying message is about how parenthood completes one's life, but what's most enjoyable is the action-reaction interplay between Williams and Crystal. At one point, Crystal explains to Williams that Lou Gehrig was that baseball player who died of Lou Gehrig's disease. "Wow," says Williams. "What are the odds on that?" Crystal looks balefully at the camera as if to say, "Can you believe this guy?"
Reitman ("Ghostbusters," "Dave") also gets laughs by having these two refugees from the '60s pursuing Scott through rock venues. One of the best sight gags has Crystal getting his cufflinks caught in a young girl's nose chain. The rock setting also sets up the film's best piece of improvisation, when the two would-be fathers try to pass Williams off as a German record producer.
Unfortunately, "Fathers' Day" doesn't give Williams and Crystal enough chances for such extended riffs together. With luck, some day they'll get them.
Starring Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nastassja Kinski
Directed by Ivan Reitman
Released by Warner Brothers
Rated PG-13 (language)
Sun score: ** 1/2
Pub Date: 5/09/97