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.
Warner Bros Everett Collection
Just how different are modern cinema and that of the '70s and '80s? Are there great movie scenes that wouldn't get made today because the audience wouldn't tolerate them? Conversely, are there scenes that were shocking back in the day that wouldn't cause anyone to think twice now?
It's a given that audiences' tastes change over time… the same as social norms do in America. Oddly, though, where audiences sometimes become more relaxed about what they will accept — for instance, with profanity, since George Carlin's "7 Dirty Words" has been reduced to two — they sometimes become more conservative about other things. Below is our look at a group of scenes from movies that probably wouldn't make it on screen for a studio release now, and some others that were shocking when they were released that wouldn't cause anyone to lift an eyebrow today.
Oh No, They Didn't!
The Last Temptation of Christ / Life of Brian
Martin Scorsese's adaption of Nikos Kazantzakis' 1953 novel, with the scene of Jesus dreaming of a sexual encounter with Mary Magdalene, was controversial in 1988 and caused an outcry from various Christian groups. In today's media environment, and with the advent of social media, that controversy would be 1,000-fold and wouldn't go away easily. Even Scorsese wouldn't be able to get that into a film now… we'll accept the debauchery and debasement of his The Wolf of Wall Street but depicting Christ as having sexual urges wouldn't fly. In the same vein, imagine trying to convince a studio to okay Monty Python's famous "Always Look on the Bright Side" finale to Brian with the singing crucifixion victims. It met with criticism when it was released in 1979, but it would cause Bill O'Reilly's head to explode now.
Quentin Tarantino gets heat from all sides for his use of the N-word in his stylized action-violence fantasies like Django Unchained and Pulp Fiction… which represent a far different aura than a studio comedy would. Many white audiences would shift uncomfortably in their seats now at Mel Brooks' comedic use of the word during the scene where Cleavon Little's Sheriff Bart first arrives at Rock Ridge. (As well as the various other ethnic jokes throughout the film; Brooks' was an equal opportunity offender.)
Airplane! / Heathers
On a similar token, as funny as Airplane! remains in our memories, in the wake of 9-11 many audiences would be squeamish about laughing at a plane crashing through a terminal, just as the reveal of Christian Slater's plot to blow up the school in Heathers would play much differently now.
What's the Big Deal?
The Exorcist / Rosemary's Baby /The Blair Witch Project
Horror movies have to really work hard now if they want to be controversial. William Friedkin's The Exorcist is still plenty scary 40 years later and the scene where Linda Blair's Regan finds an inappropriate use for a crucifix would still get attention… but it would be minor and chalked up to the now standard shock tactics employed by the genre. Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby is so non-threatening at this point that it's being done as a network TV series. Similarly, Blair Witch's up-the-nose shots would be seen as cute after the rise of films like Paranormal Activity that, in fairness, it helped spawn.
Lolita / The Last Tango in Paris
When Reese Witherspoon had sex with her teacher in Election, it barely registered as being inappropriate. Vladimir Nabokov's book and the subsequent 1962 Kubrick film were hugely controversial (pick any scene of James Mason and Peter Sellers leering at Sue Lyon). When the film was remade in 1997 with Jeremy Irons playing the tortured Humbert Humbert, obsessed with a young girl, audiences could've cared less. When Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango was released in 1972 with Marlon Brando as a widower in an illicit affair with a young French woman it earned an X-rating for its sexual content, particularly for a scene involving butter being used for something far removed from toast. When Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty came out in 1996 with Liv Tyler as an American teenager experiencing a sexual awakening amongst a group of artists in Italy, most people's reaction was, "Hey, is that Steven Tyler's daughter?"
Jay and Silent Bob look set to make some noise, noise, noise this weekend.
With more than a little help from their Tinseltown buddies, the less-than-dynamic duo will likely chew up, spit out and stomp all over that second serving of American Pie.
The competition is stiff--five new films open in wide release Friday--but the aggressively juvenile Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back should guarantee director Kevin Smith a smash ending to his View Askewniverse chronicles.
Smith's last film, 1999's controversial religious treatise Dogma, opened with $8.7 million on its way to a heavenly $30 million gross. That's more than Smith's previous low-budget comedies Clerks, Mallrats and Chasing Amy combined.
Smith's fifth film falls somewhere between the comically gritty realism of Clerks and the aggressively juvenile antics of Mallrats.
Jay and Silent Bob cross paths with almost all of young Hollywood--plus such veterans as George Carlin and Mark Hamill--in their crusade to thwart a Miramax production based on their comic-book alter egos, Bluntman and Chronic. That should attract those unfamiliar with Smith's world of convenience-store clerks, comic-book artists and loser stoners. Conversely, unfamiliar audiences also may end up confused as to why Ben Affleck plays two characters, including himself. This might prove problematic for Jay and Silent Bob's long-term prospects to entice the uninitiated to join them on their whacked-out journey to Hollywood.
Also, Smith recently fought off criticism by GLAAD that he imbued his road trip with a nasty homophobic streak. Having said that, the anti-Catholic accusations Smith faced with Dogma surely helped the otherwise difficult-to-market satire to score at the box office.
Woody Allen ventures forth with his latest screwball comedy, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. Still very much an acquired taste after all these years, the archetypal New York neurotic did enjoy his biggest hits in ages last year with the DreamWorks-distributed Small Time Crooks. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is hardly vintage Allen. The aging Woodman once again fires off one snappy line after another as he woos younger women--Helen Hunt and Charlize Theron- but the Jade Scorpion certainly lacks the crackle and pop of the Cary Grant-Irene Dunne comedies that it pays tribute to.
Allen's recent period pieces-humorous or otherwise, with or without him in the lead role-usually leave audiences cold. Also, Allen's last August release, Manhattan Murder Mystery, stalled at $11.2 million in 1993. Therefore, even with DreamWorks once again serving as Allen's benefactor, Jade Scorpion is unlikely to surpass Small Time Crooks' $17 million gross.
Like Allen, John Carpenter does not pose much of a threat to Smith. Carpenter unleashes Ghosts of Mars, with Ice Cube and Natasha Henstridge fending off possessed Martian mineworkers of the body-pierced variety. Ice Cube retains a strong following--augmented last year by Next Friday--which ensures Ghosts of Mars a modest though unspectacular opening.
Carpenter--once the undisputed master of horror sci-fi--desperately needs a hit. He's endured one flop after another in recent years, including In the Mouth of Madness, Village of the Damned, Escape from L.A. and Vampires. Ghosts of Mars-- an extremely cheap, humdrum and lazy sci-fi bloodbath--is not likely to reverse that trend. Carpenter also may alienate his hardcore fans once they realize that he shamelessly relocates his classic urban Western Assault on Precinct 13 to Mars.
Hollywood studios usually let out their dogs in late August to die a quick and painless death. That fate no doubt awaits the baseball-themed Summer Catch and the family comedy Bubble Boy.
Don't expect Freddie Prinze Jr. to register so much as a base hit with Summer Catch. Teen girls lost interest in Prinze immediately after the credits started to roll on 1999's surprise hit She's All That. Prinze's like-minded romantic comedies Down to You, Boys and Girls and Head Over Heels disappeared more quickly than you can howl "Scooby Doo, where are you?" Summer Catch will likely match Head Over Heels' $10.4 million gross, but strike out long before it can reach Boys and Girls' $20.7 million gross.
Since audiences can choose between Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Rat Race should they want to see a road movie, Bubble Boy will surely burst upon impact. Jake Gyllenhall stars a young boy suffering from primary immune deficiencies--hence his travel bubble--who takes to the road to seek out true love.
The days of $40 million-openings are over, at least for now. This could be the first weekend since Swordfish opened June 8 with $18.1 million that the No. 1 film has made less than $20 million.
Reigning champ American Pie 2 should lose its crusty crown this weekend, but it looks set to become the 12th film this year to make more than $100 million. The sequel stood at $96.8 million as of Thursday, and will likely exceed its predecessor's $101.8 million gross within days.
Rush Hour 2 continues making to make a beeline toward for $200 million. The Jackie Chan-Chris Tucker buddy yarn lost 43 percent last weekend-from $33.1 million to $19 million-but it still enjoyed a bigger third weekend than its closest box office rivals Planet of the Apes, Jurassic Park III and Pearl Harbor. Its total as of Thursday: $171.8 million.
Nicole Kidman emerged the victor in the catfight between the ex-Mrs. Cruise and Ms. Cruz.
Kidman's The Others enjoyed a $10.9 million second weekend--down a mere 23 percent from its opening weekend of $14 million. Its total as of Thursday: $37.5 million.
The sophisticated gothic yarn should hold its own against Ghosts of Mars, which will appeal more to those eager to see the red planet awash in blood.
Audiences displayed as much enthusiasm for Penelope Cruz romancing Nicolas Cage in Captain Corelli's Mandolin as they did for Cruz romancing Matt Damon in All the Pretty Horses. Which is none at all.
The World War II drama opened with a fair but unpromising $7.2 million, failing miserably to capitalize on the very public unveiling of Cruz and her new beau, Kidman's ex-husband, Tom Cruise. Its total as of Thursday: a very disappointing $10 million.
Rat Race started off slowly, with only $11.6 million in its opening weekend and $17.3 million as of Thursday. This millennial updating of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World should crawl to a halt in the face of competition from Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.
The bounty on Jesse James' head sure doesn't add up to much. American Outlaws, starring Colin Farrell, opened with a pitiful $4.8 million and has corralled a mere $7 million as of Thursday.
The Princess Diaries looks set to surpass Legally Blonde as the summer's most popular non-action sleeper hit. The fairy tale, starring Julie Andrews, has $75.7 million in its royal vault as of Thursday. The peroxided, Reese Witherspoon-courtroom spoof has filed $84.7 million as of Thursday.
So what if The Princess Diaries and Legally Blonde did not enjoy blockbuster openings?
The female-driven comedies are displaying the longevity that the likes of Jurassic Park III and Planet of the Apes simply lack. As of Thursday, the former has taken $170.2 million while the latter has scrapped up $164.2 million. Neither will cross the $200 million mark, a disappointment considering that these very expensive blockbusters opened so dynamically.
If there is a lesson to be learned, it's that aspiring princess and lawyers have longer legs than cloned dinosaurs and evolutionarily superior simians.
Comedian George Carlin performs an all-new stand-up routine at the U.S Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado. Also included are highlights from his film and television career and a question/answer session.