Retro Review – Mrs Doubtfire
Recently the entertainment industry suffered an incurable loss with the death of versatile funny-man Robin Williams. As an actor he brought so many hours of joy in so many classic films. I’ve decided to pay my respects by covering Mrs Doubtfire; my personal favourite of his films.
Released in 1993, Mrs Doubtfire is the story of a father of three who loses custody of his kids after splitting up with his wife and goes to the extreme of dressing up as an old woman in order to be employed as the housekeeper who looks after his own children. Naturally this isn’t without its problems but Daniel Hillard (Robin WIlliams) seizes this opportunity and becomes a better man as a result.
Conceptually the film sounds utterly ridiculous and a little creepy on the surface but the idea is presented with such unashamed sincerity that the audience has no choice but to back it completely and root for Daniel to have the time he deserves with his kids. Much of this is down to Williams’ likeability as a leading man and how much he genuinely loves his children. The opening scene is important in establishing the kind of man Daniel Hillard is; walking out of his job because of his stance on showing smoking in a kids cartoon sets him up as a man with integrity who believes that a proper example should be set for children. There are other examples of his strong morality peppered throughout the narrative but for me that scene sums up Daniel’s character the most effectively.
It’s really impressive how well this 21 year old film holds up today and how many truly iconic scenes manage to make it into one film. The scene where Daniel calls his wife Miranda (Sally Field) using a variety of voices to set up some truly terrible housekeepers is absolutely hilarious. Field only helps to make this better with her genuine reactions of terror and disgust telling us exactly her impression of these people that are calling her. Daniel -and consequently Williams- is clearly having a blast with this creating some truly ridiculous sounding people that would be absolutely terrifying if they actually existed.
Another great scene is when his brother creates the image of Mrs. Doubtfire and goes through many possibilities before settling on the right one. This is another scene that allows Robin Williams to showcase his tremendous vocal talent imbuing the different images with a voice that feels tailor made for that specific look. A film could almost be made about all of those possibilities they look so distinct. At the end of this montage when we see Mrs. Doubtfire for the first time the voice absolutely matches the image as well. It’s just an incredibly funny and clever sequence, reportedly Williams did a lot of improvising in this film and that’s really not hard to believe given how natural it all sounds.
The rest of the film flips between being hilarious and touching. Seeing how Daniel connects with his children in a different way as well as being able to talk to his ex wife on a different level and learn to understand things from her side. Their interactions while he is in character are just great, she feels a sense of familiarity when around “her” and is able to confide in “her” as a result and Daniel is more than happy to listen to try and figure out where he went wrong so that he can get his kids back. It’s all really sincere stuff and makes it forgivable that a man is masquerading as an old lady in order to spend time with his children.
As might be expected, Miranda finds a new man in the form of Stu (Pierce Brosnan) who is rich, charming and attentive so sweeps Miranda and her children off their feet which rubs Daniel up the wrong way as he has to sit on the sidelines to watch it happen. The passive aggressive rivalry in the film is nothing short of genius as Daniel damages his car by ripping the hood ornament off, belittles his sexual prowess to his face, attacks him with fruit and even forces him to have an allergic reaction. Unexpectedly Stu is set up as being a nice guy who genuinely wants the best for Miranda and her children, the film gives the audience enough credit to make up our own minds instead of painting Stu as an obvious villain. Daniel doesn’t like him because he sees him as a threat that might get in the way of his mission to gain custody of his children.
By the end of the film the situation isn’t completely resolved as in there’s not a big moment that brings he and his wife together again; instead opting for a more realistic approach where they compromise on something that works for everyone. The people that they become by the end of the film don’t make sense to be together but the desired goal of seeing his children is achieved so there is happiness there. Mrs. Doubtfire even finds a place in the world.
This is one of my favourite films and there’s a reason why it has stuck with me all this time. To this day the writing remains smart and hilarious, the performances are top drawer and the characters are all likeable in their own way. Williams offbeat comedy is some of the best of his career and his voice works is absolutely terrific. It’s just a great feel good movie that manages to be incredibly moving when it wants to be. For this and infinite other reasons, Robin Williams will sorely be missed, let’s hope he’s found the peace he couldn’t find in life.