Robin Williams is one of the funniest people on the planet. His dizzying rapid-fire delivery style and stream of consciousness rants have been wowing live audiences for nearly 40 years. He’s found kindred spirits in fellow performers as diverse as Jonathan Winters, John Belushi, and Billy Crystal… delighting in their ability to play his comedic games at his own high level. Why is it, then, that Williams seems to have so much trouble being funny in movies? Go ahead and think about the last time that you really laughed hard at one of his films. It’s okay, we’ll wait.
Well, There Was That One…
The go-to answer for a lot of people is Mrs. Doubtfire, which was released 21 years ago and boasts as many melodramatic moments as it does comedic ones. The same is true for two of the actor’s other ’90s hits, Jumanji and The Birdcage. When Williams goes the straight comedy route in films like Old Dogs, RV, or Club Paradise, the result is never in line with his talent and abilities. The fact is that Williams’ funniest cinematic role was probably one where we never actually saw him: as the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin.
Flair for the Dramatic
With The Angriest Man in Brooklyn being released, in which Williams plays a bitter borough resident who finds out that he only has 90 minutes to live, the discrepancy is being reinforced once again. Williams is far better — and garners far more acclaim — when he’s putting his Julliard training to use on the dramatic side. He notched Oscar nominations for his roles in The Fisher King, Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society, and took home the award for Best Supporting Actor for Good Will Hunting. He’s won acclaim for darker roles in projects like One Hour Photo and Insomnia, as well.
In many of his dramatic roles, Williams has a unique ability to add funny moments admidst the seriousness… like his D.J. patter in Good Morning, Vietnam. In actuality, that’s what makes him appealing as a dramatic actor… his panache for showing a glimpse of Comedy while wearing Tragedy.
Perhaps we’re just being selfish in wishing that Williams would find a film role that would unleash his comedy id the way that Mork & Mindy did during his early days on television, where it seemed as though he might in fact burst with energy.
He’s not the only comedian that has had difficulty figuring out a way to channel a stage persona onto the big screen. Richard Pryor and George Carlin, two of the most influential stand-up comedians ever, both struggled to find roles that played to their strengths. Much like Williams, his idol Jonathan Winters slid between characters so quickly that a movie script was too confining.
From a comedy standpoint, Williams has always been at his best when he’s free to go anywhere his muse takes him in a given moment and, with the exception of Aladdin, that’s hard to capture in a film. Difficult as it may be, it’s also not impossible. Two of Williams’ contemporaries — Steve Martin and Bill Murray — have been able to shift between comedies and dramas effectively in their film careers.
It might be that he needs a filmmaker that isn’t afraid of Williams and his scattershot approach to really showcase him properly in a movie. You get the feeling that Mel Brooks would’ve known what to do with Williams in his heyday, but there are still active directors like Todd Phillips and Seth MacFarlane that have proven to be unafraid of most anything.
It would just be a shame if future generations are strictly left with Williams’ HBO concert specials to prove just how funny he can be.