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Reviews

Mrs. Doubtfire

This film about a charmingly warped, desperate, and divorced dad in drag has held up well 15 years after its original release.


Mrs. Doubtfire

Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Robin Williams, Pierce Brosnan, Sally Field, Harvey Fierstein, Lisa Jakub, Matthew Lawrence, Mara Wilson
Distributor: Fox
MPAA rating: PG-13
Subtitle: Behind-the-Seams Edition
First date: 1993
US DVD Release Date: 2008-03-04

A modern comedy classic, Mrs. Doubtfire follows the Hillard family following the divorce of unemployed voice actor, Daniel (Robin Williams) and his successful interior decorator wife, Miranda (Sally Field). Feeling stifled by her husband's gregarious personality and frustrated by his lack of ability to hold a steady job, the serious Miranda initiates divorce proceedings. As a result, Hillard is only able to see his kids one day a week, provided he turns his life around, as decreed by the family court system.

To care for their three children -- Lydia (Lisa Jakub), the strong-willed eldest; rambunctious pre-teen Chris (Matthew Lawrence); and sweeter-than-sweet, 5-year-old Natalie (Mara Wilson) -- Miranda hires an elderly British woman by the name of Euphegenia Doubtfire to serve as a housekeeper and nanny. Mrs. Doubtfire seems too good to be true, whipping the kids and house into shape following the tumultuous upheaval and providing stable and fun environment. What Miranda doesn't know is that Mrs. Doubtfire is actually the children's father, Daniel.

A caring father and the consummate "fun dad", Daniel is desperate to spend more time with his children and attempt to reconcile with his former wife. In addition to holding down a less-than-dream job as a shipping clerk for a local television studio, he goes to drastic lengths, moonlighting as the likeable Mrs. Doubtfire by burying himself under a padded suit and layers of prosthetics, provided courtesy of his brother, Jack, a flamboyantly gay makeup artist (Harvey Fierstein in a brief, but memorable role, keeping rapid-fire improv pace with Williams).

The Behind-the-Seams Edition of Mrs. Doubtfire presents the 1993 film in brilliant, digital glory, complete with a slew of extras exploring the aspects behind the film's production; Mrs. Doubtfire's Academy Award winning makeup; and even a segment devoted to the film's animation sequences rendered by the legendary Chuck Jones.

Beyond an in-depth look at the film's technical aspects, the two-disc DVD set also features hours of deleted scenes, many of which include Robin Williams given free, director-approved range to go off on a spontaneity-fueled rocket ride, ripping through the scenes on multiple captured takes.

With his penchant for improv, Williams may be this generation's Jackie Gleason. Both actors had a reputation for a knack for performing scenes on-the-fly, congenially coercing other players on the set to think on their feet and react. As director Chris Columbus noted, this threw the concept of adhering to filming with a storyboard almost completely out the window.

Several cameras were used to catch the genuine, initial reactions of cast members to Williams' antics to give the scenes even more of a sense of authenticity. While the thought of this might be completely maddening to draconian directors bent on controlling every last detail of filming, judging by the longevity of Mrs. Doubtfire, Williams' star-power driven method of madness brought out the best of all involved with the film.

Williams and his wife, Marcia Garces-Williams, served as two of the producers behind Mrs. Doubtfire. After reading the novel, Alias Madam Doubtfire by Anne Fine, Garces-Williams believed that a film adaptation would be a perfect vehicle for her husband. Thus began the meticulous process of gaining studio approval and backing, as well as garnering the right cast, crew, and director to bring the project to fruition.

Part of the film's charm and success lies within the spot-on casting needed to strike the right balance of comedy and emotion. Tackling the previously uncharted territory of divorced family life with comedy in mind required actors well-versed in their craft to make it possible to see the situation in a humorous yet realistic light, devoid of irony. While Kramer vs. Kramer broke ground in showcasing the bitterness of divorce, Mrs. Doubtfire didn't sugar coat the divorce debacle, yet lightened the mood significantly by slapping in an element of another Dustin Hoffman film character, the drag-tastic Dorothy Michaels of Tootsie.

If there's one film that cements Robin Williams' legacy, Mrs. Doubtfire might be it. While he's known for off-the-wall comedy, Williams' work as a serious, dramatic actor can't be taken lightly, either. To emote from under several layers of latex appliances is no easy task. The arduous process itself took between two and four hours to apply the Oscar-winning makeup that seamlessly transformed the actor into the elderly British (although "her" brogue leans towards Scottish) nanny. With this in mind, Williams pulls off the difficult role with aplomb.

His characterization of Daniel is as realistic as they come, showing the difficulty of a man adjusting to life outside of his family and struggling to retain a sense of humor and optimism. Williams' portrayal shows divorce as the ultimate let-down, a dissolution of all that was once held dear and keeping yourself -- not "it" -- together for the kids, sometimes putting on (quite literally) a show for the benefit of all.

Conversely, Daniel's transformation as Mrs. Doubtfire is very real, too. In one scene, after his "secret identity" is revealed, his family still refers to their former nanny as "her", not entirely distinguishing the entity as a creation of Daniel's. Similarly, the viewer also sees Mrs. Doubtfire as a real extension of the character of Daniel Hillard -- kind, occasionally potty-mouthed, sentimental, and fun.

Alongside the affable, joke-n'-emote machine that is Robin Williams, it would be easy for the character of Miranda to have devolved into a one-dimensional shrew were it not for the sublime likeability of Sally Field. Instead, she's fully realized as a woman attempting to get on with a normal life, and trying to reclaim an identity for herself, after having been married for over a decade.

While all of the characters represent archetypes of divorced family life, the cast and direction ensure that they stay characters and not caricatures. Under a lesser actor, Pierce Brosnan's character of Stu, Miranda's old flame who walks back into her life after hiring her to renovate his home, could turn into nothing more than a suave plot device. Brosnan's portrayal is dashing, but not completely inaccessible. He deals with walking into a broken home and there is a faint underlying of worry as to whether the children may resent him entering the picture so soon after their parents' divorce. Instead, Stu moves with trepidation and genuine feeling for all involved in the situation without disintegrating into a 2-D pantywaist. Even Daniel/Mrs. Doubtfire finds it really hard to take him down a peg or two.

Beyond Columbus' direction and the actors involved, the script deftly incorporates laugh-out-loud humor and emotion without clogging the film's arteries with cloying, saccharine sweetness. The usual hotbed of divorce-related topics are touched upon without being enforced ad nauseum. Mrs. Doubtfire realistically shows the issues involved, like children blaming themselves for the divorce or the reality that oftentimes in divorce, one half of the couple still carries a non-reciprocal torch for the other.

The difficult task of starting over from both parties' perspectives is explored, as are the absolute, black-and-white terms of the family court system. Although even the character of Miranda would agree that Daniel (pre-makeover) is a good father, it's his lack of gainful employment and socio-economic status that impacts the court's decision as to how often he sees his kids rather than the emotional aspect and provisions of parenting. The result of the film's jigsaw pieces is an all-encompassing message that incorporates not just those from divorced families, but all families, including non-traditional ones, too: "If there's love, dear, those are the ties that bind. And you'll have a family in your heart forever."

In a day and age where shows like Springer and Maury instill the image that all divorced dads are deadbeats and absentee fathers, a film like Mrs. Doubtfire is still relevant in showing that another, more prevalent if not popularized species of father exists who actually wishes to remain a positive fixture in their family's life. In Mrs. Doubtfire, much like in real life, not everything is a boo-hoo fest -- nor does it have a happy ending. The film ends on a high, yet poignant note with a terrifically written and performed monologue by the title character -- not going for the cheap, unrealistic ploy that would only offer false hope to those of us who live to the left of the silver screen.

Right until the end, Mrs. Doubtfire offers a dose of realism, espousing the belief that laughter and love, while not a broad-spectrum panacea, can be the best medicine and a necessary tool in getting through the hard times.

8

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