Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Classics: A Review of Mrs. Doubtfire By Lauren Ennis

An equal opportunity Father's Day review

Parenthood is one of the most complex and daunting roles that a person can undertake. While maintaining the emotional and physical welfare of another person is a serious matter, the juggling act that is parenting is also rife with comic possibilities. The 1993 comedy Mrs. Doubtfire captures the responsibilities, misunderstandings, and love that make up modern parenting to expert comic effect, while still maintaining a heartfelt message.  In belated honor of Father’s Day, I’ll be giving my take on this unusual, but always entertaining ode to fatherhood.

The film begins with career focused mother Miranda Hillard (Sally Field) arriving home for her son's birthday only to find that her husband, Daniel (Robin Williams), has proceeded to begin the festivities without her. While Miranda had planned a typical celebration with cake and presents, Daniel completely outdoes her efforts by hosting a wild party for their son and his friends, which includes loud music and a petting zoo that prompt the neighbors to report the family to the police for causing a disturbance. The incident infuriates the already frustrated Miranda, and her ensuing argument with Daniel finally pushes her to pursue the divorce that she reveals she has been contemplating for some time. Following the divorce, Miranda is given primary custody of the couple’s three children and stay-at-home dad Daniel is forced to re-enter the workplace. The limited visits with his children combined with Miranda’s budding relationship with a handsome co-worker quickly wear on Daniel, driving him to devise a plan to reclaim his place in his household; by taking on a new job as the family’s nanny. The unconventional plot requires him to go so deeply undercover that neither his ex-wife nor his children will suspect his true identity, prompting him to assume the identity of a nanny in the firm but fun tradition of Mary Poppins, the elderly Euphegenia Doubtfire. Under the guise of the no-nonsense nanny, Daniel is able to spend time with his family and gains vital insight into what went wrong with his parenting and marriage. As time wears on, however, the line between Daniel’s true self and the false identity that he has assumed becomes blurred, leading to a reveal that will ultimately decide the role that he has in his family’s life.

An average American family
The film successfully blends comic antics and genuine emotion in a way that makes the story a smooth blend of comedy and drama that reminds us all of the importance of family. While the drag routine that is the premise of the film had already been trod by the likes of such earlier hits as Some Like It Hot and Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire manages to add an original spin to the concept. Rather than transforming into an attractive young woman for personal gain, Daniel instead assumes the identity of an elderly woman in order to preserve his family. As a result, while Daniel’s various misadventures in womanhood are truly sidesplitting, the motives propelling him keep the story grounded. The script also avoids relying upon the usual gender-bending clichés such as mixed romantic messages, learning about the opposite sex, and the integration of the opposite sex’s behaviors into the main character’s personality. Instead of such broad humor, the script focuses upon its characters’ and their specific dilemmas, which adds a poignancy and realism that would be impossible to create amidst genre clichés. The family drama and situational comedy are played with equal effectiveness as the audience is drawn into Daniel’s struggle to maintain his bond with his children without forgetting the ridiculousness of his predicament.

The cast lends excellent dramatic and comedic support and carries the film’s promising premise into a truly enjoyable film experience. Sally Field adds a level of humanity and depth to her role as the hard pressed and stern Miranda, making her a truly complex woman rather than a walking stereotype of a rigid career woman. Similarly, Pierce Brosnan imbues his portrayal of Miranda’s new boyfriend with enough charm for audiences to understand her attraction to him, but also includes a subtly off-putting self assurance in his portrayal that ensures that audiences will continue to root for Daniel to win her back. Lisa Jakub, Matthew Lawrence, and Mara Wilson all provide endearing but believable performances as the Hillard children, especially Jakub and Lawrence who show the effects of divorce upon their characters without ever resorting to histrionics. Harvey Fierstein and Scott Capurro also provide hilarious turns as Daniel’s make-up artist brother and his boyfriend while Anne Haney’s rigid social worker, Mrs. Sellner, excellently counters Daniel’s zaniness. Despite the excellent performances of the supporting cast, the film truly belongs to Robin Williams. Over the course of the film, Williams demonstrates a variety of emotions as two distinctly different characters with complete believability. His role is particularly complicated due to the dual nature of his character which calls upon him to not only play both characters with equal skill but to also play Mrs. Doubtfire in such a way as to ensure that audiences are always aware that Daniel is present beneath the wig and glasses. Not only does he perfectly mimic the accent and mannerisms required for Mrs. Doubtfire, but he also creates a layered performance that makes her stand alone as a fully-fleshed character despite her being just a disguise for Daniel.

Mrs. Doubtfire is a truly unique film that is far from the drag that gender-bending comedies have become. The film combines slapstick comedy with heartfelt drama in a way that truly captures the ups and downs of family life. The excellent script and superb performances lend sincere emotion and sharp wit to what could have easily been a generic premise and allow the film to reach the heights of a genuine crowd pleaser. The film serves as a hilarious reminder of the crucial role that fathers and father figures play in children’s lives and the strength of family bonds in the face of adversity. While she may not be as magical as Mary Poppins, or as musical as Maria von Trapp, Mrs. Doubtfire is a truly unique addition to cannon of nannies in cinema who proves that some of the greatest blessings really do come in disguise.

The resemblance is uncanny!

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