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Has Aging Joker Robin Williams Given His Last Laugh?

Fri., May 30, 1997

Is it just me, or does Robin Williams make anyone else nervous?

I certainly don’t hate him. And his talent is a given. He was excellent in “Awakenings,” “The Birdcage” and the various “Comic Relief” specials.

In his interviews he comes off as someone far more thoughtful and likable than a pathetic pseudo-macho fraud such as Bruce Willis.

But sometime around “Hook” (1991), Williams started giving me the serious willies.

His hyperactive man-child persona, currently on full display in “Fathers’ Day” is … unwatchable? Appalling? Played out? All of the above?

Entertainment Weekly recently named him the “Funniest Person Alive.” Which, I’m sure, has absolutely nothing to do with “Fathers’ Day” being a Warner Bros. film and Entertainment Weekly being a Time Warner publication. Well, even if it did, it hardly matters since Williams has routinely been called the “Funniest Man in America,” “the King of Comedy,” etc., since the early ‘80s.

Nope, the thing about Robin Williams is a one-two punch of bad timing.

First, there’s the aging factor, something that’s plagued clowns from Buster Keaton to Jerry Lewis. Much like sex symbols, starlets and supermodels, most comics aren’t allowed to age gracefully in public. We like our pinups under 30 and our jokers to remain childlike.

Keaton was the same genius at 50 as he was at 30, when he made “The General.” But moviegoers weren’t interested. Lewis’ run-amok schtick was more appealing in his 20s than in his 60s.

Williams has pulled off his man-child run for longer than most of his predecessors. Thus, “Hook,” “Jack,” “Toys,” “The Fisher King,” “Jumanji” and now “Fathers’ Day” - all of which have called on him to project an unspoiled, childlike spirit inside a grown-up’s body.

Of course, there’s always the loathsome masquerade in “Mrs. Doubtfire.” But haven’t boys in dresses long been a staple of prep school high jinks and college societies such as Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Club?

Interestingly, in all these pictures, Williams is mostly desexualized and thereby somewhat infantilized. In fact, if you think about it, of all the movies he’s made this decade, the only one in which he’s presented for most of the film as part of an ongoing sexual relationship is as Nathan Lane’s longtime companion in “The Birdcage.” (Yes, he’s married in “Hook” and divorced in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” but his marital status is mostly a necessary ancillary to the plots of the films.)

Growing older is inescapable, even for professional imps. But Williams happens to come along at a time when Hollywood itself is trying like mad to sustain a state of perpetual adolescence. Like a bunch of overly hormonal teenagers, the power players are looking for the sure thing, the quick fix, the right gimmick. Thus, whether he wants to be or not, Williams has been reduced to a kind of gimmick - a flesh-and-blood special effect, as easily marketed as a T. Rex or the Titanic.

When he and co-star Billy Crystal dutifully made the talk-show rounds to promote “Fathers’ Day,” you could almost see the different hosts listening to their producers’ whispered-in-their-earpiece instructions: “Just sit back and let Robin do his thing. Nobody sells Robin like Robin. Remember, he’s the Funniest Person Alive!!!”

Williams is becoming trapped in his own cage aux folles, playing court jester to a kind of dumbed-down Middle American mediocrity that’s been anointed royalty simply because its box-office buck counts just as much as anyone else’s. And since there are more of them. … A common complaint among former Robin supporters is that he’s too self-consciously manic. But, then, why wouldn’t he be? Playing to an audience that’s not quite up to speed, the most natural thing for a quicksilver mind to do is accelerate.

Robin Williams may indeed be the Funniest Person Alive!! But right now, it’s killing him.


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