Objection! – Remembering Robin Williams


Elessar: Hello all and welcome to another exciting edition of Objection. I’m Elessar and with me as always is Star…wait a second, you’re not Starshine.

guyinthe3rdrow: And you’re not the free whiskey I was promised!

Elessar: Well then this is awkward all around. With me this time is not Starshine, but my good friend, guyinthe3rdrow, here for his first objection.

guyinthe3rdrow: Hey, at least it’s mutual. And greetings, folks! First time contributor, somewhat long time reader on this feature.

Elessar: Our topic for this week has been covered in a lot of corners of the internet, but not this particular corner. In memory of the dearly departed Robin Williams, we have come up with several of his movies that we feel have been unfairly overlooked, and we’d like to discuss for you.

guyinthe3rdrow: Cause let’s face it – in life, Williams was an insanely prolific performer, working quite regularly even to the end.

Which is why we felt it was somewhat wanting that many of the In Memory pieces kept looping the same four or five movies only.

To the point that, in starting this project, we actually started with a list of titles not to discuss.

Elessar: Indeed we did. Obviously we won’t be including Aladdin, Hook, Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Morning Vietnam…basically if it’s one of the first movies to come to your mind when we say “Robin Williams” it’s probably not on the list. So, with that in mind, care to start us off with our first title?

guyinthe3rdrow: If it comes to me, I’m going to opt to jump start this one with the title that I was actually surprised I didn’t see getting more attention here, given it got the man an Oscar nomination: Terry Gilliam’s 1991 drama The Fisher King.

Elessar: It is odd that Fisher doesn’t get more attention. It’s hardly his only nomination (as I recall, he was nominated 4 times and won once) but for my money, it’s the best performance of the nominated ones and certainly the most interesting of the movies.

guyinthe3rdrowIndeed. It’s simultaneously familiar and different for him as a role – sort like a crossing over point between his more dramatic roles and his more over the top comedic elements.

I mean, yeah, as Parry, we see Williams letting his out there silliness fly a lot in this one, but we also learn pretty early on that silliness came about to cover for some pretty hard-hitting trauma. We don’t see Williams let that side out a lot in the film, but the times he does…damn.

Elessar: One of the running themes you’ll see on this list is using Williams’ well known persona for something deeper, and you’ll probably see it in a lot of his better movies; The atypical teacher in Dead Poets Society, the offbeat psychologist in Good Will Hunting, the rebellious radio DJ in Good Morning Vietnam, etc. But this is the first, and as far as I know only, movie to use a celebrity’s well known persona as a character’s psychological defense mechanism.

guyinthe3rdrow: I’m gonna be thinking if there’s any other examples out there, but yeah. This really is the one case can clearly think of for that.

In some ways, it’s actually kind of strange to look at his ‘serious’ resurgence in the mid-2000s and realize how many people seemed to forget that he’d gone to these darker areas in film before that era. Not only that, he did it to a lot of acclaim.

I mean, I’ll grant the collective pop culture memory can be surprisingly short sometimes, but it’s still kind of strange to look back and go “Actually, he’s always had this side to his performances”

Elessar: Well I think a lot of the issue is that the movie wasn’t selling it that way. I’ve gone back and looked at the trailers and such, and the trailers were selling a wacky buddy comedy, with none of the darker or more fantastical elements in there.

It’s also a bit of a weird duck of a movie. Oh it’s brilliant, but I don’t know if a lot of people are really into movies that complex. It’s not really a big crowd pleaser like Aladdin or Hook.

guyinthe3rdrow: Oh God, I had forgotten to check out the trailers on this one. I can only imagine how people must have felt seeing that in the theaters for the first time. “It’s a wacky movie from the Monty Python guy with Robin Williams!”

Then in the first fifteen minutes, Jeff Bridges accidentally sends on a guy on a killing spree.

Elessar: And Robin Williams has a breakdown. Oh yeah, that’s the fun part. Williams saw his wife in the massacre and had a breakdown and believes he’s living in a fantasy world. S**t I’m doing a bad job selling it.

I will say, for such a ‘wacky’ performance, Williams can also turn heart-wrenching pretty quickly. The scene towards the end with the Red Knight is incredibly dark and also a great visualization of how trauma can manifest itself. Plus it does magical realism well. Magical realism is REALLY hard to get right.

Robin always did take his Legend of Zelda cosplays very seriously.

Robin always did take his Legend of Zelda cosplays very seriously.

guyinthe3rdrow: Oh God…I’ll admit this here and now: The night the news broke, when I saw all the people saying they were rewatching Aladdin in his memory, I went for this movie. That last scene with the Red Knight hit me WAY harder than I expected it would. Especially with the information we had at the time.

In particular the moment when he first sees the knight again and you can tell he’s trying not to face it. His begging “Let me have this!” That night was like getting slugged in the gut. I still don’t regret the overall decision, but MAN, I should have thought that choice through more.

Elessar: Fisher King was a…dark choice, but a good one. I personally chose the Birdcage. I cannot deny that Fisher King is probably one his best movies, but I dunno if I could’ve watched it when I was that raw.

So, on that note, you wanna move on to The Birdcage?

guyinthe3rdrow: Good call. Right about now, that’s a good mood lift.

Elessar: Indeed. Birdcage, like a lot of Williams’ better films is one with a purpose, but it chooses to be light rather than dark about it. It’s hard to believe that once upon a time, that movie was revolutionary, but it was. And not just because Williams is underplaying it.

guyinthe3rdrow: Which is funny considering the casting we almost got out of it.

Elessar: I think the casting we got was to the best. It gave Williams a good chance to stretch his dramatic muscles, and gave Nathan Lane a chance to explode.

guyinthe3rdrow: Indeed. and I’m gonna be honest: All respect to Steve Martin, but I really don’t think he’d have played Armand quite as well as Williams did.

Also, as I think my girlfriend put it best – let’s be honest – Nathan Lane makes a better woman than Williams (yes, even with Mrs. Doubtfire factored in.)

Jokes aside though, I do genuinely like the chemistry the two had on this one, and a big part of that is helped by having Williams play the more restrained personality. Yes, he still has a few flamboyant moments, but for a lot of it, he’s more exasperated than outright over the top.

Just ignore the half naked Hank Azaria in the background.

Just ignore the half naked Hank Azaria in the background.

Elessar: Oh he definitely does. When Williams did a woman, it was a joke. When Lane did it, it was more like a character…even while Lane wasn’t very restrained.

And I think it was a good choice for Williams. He does this very sly, exasperated manner with the character, that I don’t know if Martin could do. Martin tends to get more angry when he’s exasperated and…

I am now imagining the Birdcage with Martin’s character from Planes, Trains and Automobiles and I can’t get it out of my head.

guyinthe3rdrow: Welp, THAT just got a whole lot angrier.

But yeah, with Williams, exasperation is always with that quick grab to try and resemble calm (sort of like, for lack of a better example, John Cleese’s warmup phases on Fawlty Towers before the crazy gets amped up to 11.) He can hold that ‘everything’s fine’ in character while also giving off a look that says ‘…except for all these other problems.

One of the really telling bits with it being mid-way through the dinner. They have the scene in the other room where Williams, after giving Hank Azaria and the Dan Futterman the whole talk about how everything is under control, he proceeds to trip and fall.

Apparently, this was an accident, but Williams plays it so naturally into the scene that the only clue you even have that it wasn’t planned was the looks on Azaria and Futterman’s faces as they try not to laugh.

Elessar: I think that Cleese comparison is apt, because it does feel a little like a Fawlty Towers episode. Lies and lies and lies keep stacking up until it all comes crashing down.

And I said, when this movie came out, it wasn’t just funny, it was damned near revolutionary. I honestly can’t think of another movie that early that treated a gay relationship like a normal one, just…gayer. Even if both of them are really REALLY gay (you know what I mean).

guyinthe3rdrow: Yes on both counts. I mean, yeah, they are both pretty damn flamboyant. At the same time, as the film goes, they’re really just a couple. They have their ups and their downs, and a lot of it’s exaggerated for laughs, but that’s more because it’s a comedy than any dig at gays.

Cause let’s fact it, with the exception of the kids, everyone’s personalities in the movie are played up for the farce factor.

Elessar: Agreed. I’d almost feel bad about it if it weren’t for the girl’s parents who are the most impressively republican republicans this side of a failed Chris Rock vehicles…no one will get that one right?

Everyone is kind of a stereotype, which is one of the reasons the movie works, because by the end you see past the stereotypes and see the people underneath. But now I’m just talking script minutiae.

guyinthe3rdrow: On some level, Rock hopes no one will get that. …maybe that’s why he’s doing the SNL Reunion Tour– Grown Ups movies. And yeah. By the time you get to the reveal at the end, everyone sort of strips away the broad gags and just sees each other on the same footing.

Elessar: I dunno if we’ve got a whole ton more to say about The Birdcage. Want to try moving on to…decidedly darker fair?

guyinthe3rdrow: Depends, are we talking kind of dark or ‘light can’t escape’ dark? Cause let’s face it, dark covers several of the titles we lined up for this.

Elessar: I’ll let you choose.

guyinthe3rdrow: Well, we’re already kind of on the lighter end of things, so how about we ease them into the darker end of things with some black comedy?

And if we’re talking Williams and dark comedy, well, the somewhat infamous Death to Smoochy is probably as good a place to start as any.

Elessar: Ahh Death to Smoochy. You are…not a very good movie but you’re a fascinating one so I end up enjoying you more than a lot of better movies.

guyinthe3rdrow: Agreed on both counts.

On the one hand, it’s a REALLY uneven movie, and there’s parts of the tone that lead me to wonder if the studios decided this was getting too nihilistic. On the other, it’s also pretty ambitious as a big budget comedy goes.

Elessar: I think the main problem is that it can’t decide how dark it wants to be. The best parts of the movie are Williams’ character (Rainbow-F**king-Randolph) spiraling into insanity, but the majority of the movie is given over to the titular Smoochy who just…isn’t very interesting.

I mean there are hints that Norton’s character is also somewhat unhinged too, but they never go anywhere.

guyinthe3rdrow: Man, I remember back when this was first coming out. Based on the promos, I initially thought the movie was going to be Robin Williams deciding the only way to get his job back was to murder Edward Norton.

So I was expecting some pitch black humor and while Williams delivered for his part…the actual threat was kind of all over the place.

And this is one of those things I will always kind of hold against the Razzies. The movie had a lot of problems, but honestly, I think Williams is one of the pieces I can honestly say works the most consistently out of all the parts of it.

Elessar: Williams is the best part of it, but unfortunately he’s also the most public part of it, so he…kinda took the blame. Honestly, I’d watch an entire movie of Rainbow f**king Randolph being a lunatic but the movie isn’t interested in it.

That’s not to say that Norton isn’t good at playing Peewee Herm DAMMIT I mean Smoochy but he’s just…not that interesting. Also Catherine Keener isn’t having sex with a Cameron Diaz possessed John Malkovich in it. That always disappoints me.

guyinthe3rdrow: Agreed. One of the big problems with Norton is, like you said, we get the hint that he has issues, but the movie never really does anything with them.

By comparison, almost everyone else around him (barring Danny Woodburn maybe) is varying degrees of evil or just broken and the movie tries to break Norton. At times it is trying VERY hard to make him break. But for some reason, it just…never happens.

Elessar: Well it seems primed to. It literally has a scene where the breaking moment happens, where he’s about to become just as dark as everyone else but then…doesn’t. You mentioned that you feel the studios interfered, and if they did, they did in the 3rd act, because a lot of things get tied up very quickly and neatly.

Because of that, the movie feels uneven. It has to keep Norton’s character nice, which is really at odds with the rest of the movie, which is full of awful people doing awful things to each other.

guyinthe3rdrow: The weirdest part about the breaking point scene in question is how his salvation comes about. It’s not Catherine Keener that talks him down from the dark side – it’s the Irish mobsters who, earlier in the movie, we see viciously decapitate Harvey Fierstein as an act of vengeance. I don’t know if that’s supposed to be part of the joke or not, but it really DOES make for a mixed feeling on the whole deal.

Elessar: I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to find out they were told “Fix this,” with a very tight deadline and that was what they came up with without thinking it through. Still, Williams is awesome in it. Even if there is one scene that’s currently…kinda hard to watch in the wake of his suicide (you know the one I mean).

And SPEAKING of hard to watch, have we got a doozy for you.

guyinthe3rdrow: Ooooh yeah…on both counts.

One last thing I will say for Smoochy. Timing is everything with this film. You look back at it now, and with where Williams was in his career, you can see Rainbow Randolph is like a giant well-intentioned middle finger at the family friendly image that became his staple in the 90s. Also, after the fact you can tell this had to pull punches, DeVito then went on to prove dark comedy can sell on joining It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

…and with that, we return to this line of thought. You want to take us into this one?

Elessar: Well in the spirit of Death to Smoochy: Sit down boys and girls. I’m here to tell you the story of a man. A very bitter and cynical man named Bobcat.

guyinthe3rdrow: Funny story here (…well, maybe funny isn’t the word). Seems he and Williams had been good buddies going back to their standup days. Given how dark their crossover movies tended to get, it does paint an interesting picture of that friendship…

Elessar: It does, doesn’t it? Anyway, this movie is hard to watch, not just because it was directed by Mr. Goldthewait (who at one point directed a movie with the moral “If you want a good relationship, lie.”) but because it features Williams’ in movie son (who is, for the record, just an all around waste of carbon) dying through self strangulation, albeit unintentionally.


guyinthe3rdrow: Yeeeeeah. …A feeling that gets made even more awkward because…well…you’re being way too kind in that assessment of his son in this. The movie in question is World’s Greatest Dad for those who haven’t figured it out. Williams plays a struggling writer and teacher who, in true Bobcat Goldthwait fashion has the world’s collective boot lodged in his crotch.

This all changes one day when his son – who is pure garbage wrapped in human skin — dies as Elessar has described here. Much to his chagrin, the death of his scumbag progeny turns him into a success.

Elessar: So yeah. It’s dark. Like…really dark. Even before Williams’ died, this would probably be the darkest straight up comedy in his career. And yet, I think it works, better than Death to Smoochy does. Mostly because, you know, Bobcat knows his stuff, but also because it keeps a consistent tone.

I mean, the scene where Williams finds his son is really heartwrenching (Williams does an incredible job) but the movie works realllllly hard making his son into Joffrey Goes to High School, so we’re not bummed out by it. Hell, the only reason we might be is because Williams is sad.

guyinthe3rdrow: Pretty much. I’m gonna be honest – a big part of what got me through the first chunk of this movie was the promise that his son was gonna die.

I know that sounds horrible, but if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll agree – the kid is just an awful person. To the point where Williams still trying with him is equal parts admirable and frustrating.

Elessar: Yeah. As dark as it is to say, if I was his father and I walked in on him dead I’d probably go “…Oh thank God.” I will say that, like Smoochy, it kinda wimps out with it’s ending but at least it’s more consistent on the way there.

guyinthe3rdrow: I think it helps that this film wasn’t being pitched as a big release, so Goldthwait had a bit more freedom to take the concept darker than the studios would let DeVito on their dime.

Elessar: True. It’s almost enough to make me wish we got more Bobcat Goldthwait movies. Although given how much of a mess God Bless America was, I might want to be a little more careful what I wish for.

guyinthe3rdrow: It is kind of a mixed prospect. He takes chances, and that’s definitely something we could use more. They don’t always work, but I’m still game for letting him keep making those attempts, just to see what he tries.

Elessar: Well, I think we’ve gone as dark as we can while still being in comedy. Wanna just say f**k it and go straight up horror?

guyinthe3rdrow: It is an appropriate double-back to the start of the darkness tour. 2002 was an…interesting year in Williams’s career.

Alongside the fact Rainbow Randolph in DtS is largely almost a morbid parody of his 90s marketing image, that year he also introduced the world to another darker side of him that…well… Scared the everloving crap out of people.

Elessar: Well it certainly scared the crap out of me when I saw it. It’s also probably the farthest out of left field performance Williams ever gave. I mean, most actors will wanna try and escape their personas at some point but…damn. This would be like Adam Sandler starring in a remake of The Shining…wow that hurt to type.

guyinthe3rdrow: Hey now, if nothing else, it’d be shorter than the made for TV version was.

Elessar: What, less than four hours? That’s not hard.

guyinthe3rdrow: Just saying. It WOULD have that going for it.

…well, that and, it being Sandler, it would dethrone Dreamcatcher as the most toilet-based Stephen King movie…but we’re getting off point.

Elessar: But enough about vastly inferior comedy actors. We’re here to talk about One Hour Photo.

"...I have a feeling my scrap booking hobby has gotten a little out of control."

“…I have a feeling my scrap booking hobby has gotten a little out of control.”

guyinthe3rdrow: This…this is actually another I’m kind of surprised more people didn’t discuss in memorial.

Cause at the time this first came out, people were really, REALLY blown away by Williams’s turn as Sy. It was so unlike anything he’d played before people almost didn’t realize that was him.

Elessar: I believe he did one other horror film, but I don’t recall it being anywhere near as good as Photo…probably why I can’t remember it but I remember Photo.

I think it’s one of those movies that goes so violently against people’s idea of him that they didn’t WANT to remember it.

guyinthe3rdrow: Only other I can recall from him horror-wise was his stint as the antagonist in the American remake of Insomnia that came a year or two later.

Elessar: …That would be it.

guyinthe3rdrow: The circumstances of his death may not have helped Sy’s case any either. Cause really, this may be the most broken character Williams has ever played.

I mean, yes, we’ve discussed some of his other roles as damaged people, but even then, Rainbow Randolph eventually finds some level of acceptance, and Parry, while never fully healed, does start to get something resembling a normal life. There is no silver lining for Sy. He’s just a genuinely sad, disturbed, lonely man living in fantasies.

Which actually speaks to how well Williams plays this role, really. On one level, he is a genuinely unsettling person. We see the extent of his delusions and it is downright chilling to watch. At the same time, Williams manages to find that human touch at the center of it all. For as horrific as Sy is, you can’t help but pity him.

Elessar: That’s what I find so fascinating about it. I mean, it’s got some interesting direction to go with it (I know a lot of you haven’t seen Never Let Me Go. Go see it) but a lot of the movie is on Williams to carry. He’s got to emote a lot just through posture and facial expression and he does a pretty excellent job.

guyinthe3rdrow: Oh, big time. Especially the film’s climax. I won’t go into details for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but it is one of those moments of character revelation that can make or break an actor. In the right hands, it’s a hard hitting reveal that causes a lot of the character’s motives to fall into place. In the wrong hands, it can smack of a poorly plotted bid for sympathy.

Williams takes that scene and he turns it into a full blown “Oh GOD!” moment of revelation. There’s nothing about it that feels overly dramatic or forced. It just hits the right mark to shock without beating the audience over the head.

Elessar: Another thing I really like about it is how…well genuine it was of Williams. He wasn’t stepping outside his comfort zone because he wanted an Oscar or critical acclaim (he already had a well deserved Oscar, and much critical acclaim). I always got the feeling he was doing it because he felt like it.

It also seemed like it was a little bit like it was his demo reel to get to play the Riddler, which he supposedly wanted to. Hell, I’d have paid to see it.

guyinthe3rdrow: That makes two of us. Actually, rewatching this, I remembered all the talk about how, when Terry Gilliam was going to do Watchmen back in the day, he wanted Williams for Rorschach. When I first heard the rumor, I wasn’t sure how well I could see it. Rewatching him in this, now I’m sad we never did see.

And before someone mentions it in the comments – no, the Sam Hamm script Joel Silver talked about wasn’t the one he actually intended to shoot with. Apparently he was actually displeased with that ending and was in the midst of rewrites when the project was shut down.

Elessar: So, now that we’ve gone as dark as we can go, perhaps something lighter before we wrap up? Something…Gilliam related?

guyinthe3rdrow: Agreed.

So…Branagh’s Hamlet— Okay, kidding. Though his role in that actually isn’t bad. He’s just…not in it for enough time to really point out in this article. To bring us out on a lighter note, it’s back to 1988 for Gilliam’s first outing with Williams on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

Elessar: Ah Baron Munchausen. I love you so as an adult, but you scared the piss out of me as a kid. And mostly thanks to…okay, MOSTLY thanks to Death at the very end, but partially thanks to Robin Williams extremely bizarre appearance as the King of the Moon

guyinthe3rdrow: I’m gonna be honest, the first time I saw this, I almost forgot that was Williams. Which is weird to say now, but man, leave it to Gilliam to find a way to up the absurdity ante for the man.

Elessar: Well it is mostly just his head flying around.

Did you think I was joking?

Did you think I was joking?

For those of you who haven’t seen it…what the f**k are you doing reading this when you should be seeing it, shame on you. But in case you’re adamant about finishing this article, Williams’ King of the Moon is literally sepatated at the neck.

His head and body can operate indepedently. His body is a complete hedonist, but his head wants to pursue more intellectual pursuits but must remain separated from his body or else be forced to indulge his body’s whims. Which is actually a really interesting metaphor…

Have we mentioned Terry Gilliam is a bit of a weirdo?

guyinthe3rdrow: He’s a former Python. It’s part of the contract.

Elessar: I really don’t know what else to say about it except…go see Baron Munchausen. Right now. Seriously, stop reading and go.

guyinthe3rdrow: Especially since you may need it after some of the other titles we’ve discussed here. I mean, this and the Birdcage excepted, this list got pretty damn dark.

Elessar: Well everyone remembers Aladdin or I’d have included that. It WAS the first movie I ever saw in theaters.

guyinthe3rdrow: I don’t think it was my first, but it WAS one I had fond memories of seeing in theaters, so yeah, I’d agree with that mention.

In closing, let me just say once again, farewell Mister Williams. Even here we only scratched the surface of years of great work. You made us laugh, you made us think, you probably even made a few of us have trouble sleeping at times.

Thanks for the memories, good sir.

Elessar: Yeah. He was there for the first movie I ever saw and for a whole ton after that. I don’t know if it’s entirely fair to blame him entirely for me being a cinephile but…well he didn’t hurt.

Now I believe there was some talk of whiskey?

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Elessar is a 25 year old Alaskan born cinephile with an obsession with Nicolas Cage and a god complex. His favorite movie is Blade Runner and his least favorite is The Condemned...which probably says more about him than he wants it to.

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Elessar is a 25 year old Alaskan born cinephile with an obsession with Nicolas Cage and a god complex. His favorite movie is Blade Runner and his least favorite is The Condemned...which probably says more about him than he wants it to.

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