As of today, Robin Williams has allegedly been dead for exactly two years.
I say “allegedly” because, in a sense, I’m still in denial about the whole thing. Robin Williams can’t be dead, because how could life go on without him?
It actually can’t. He was one genie we couldn’t just put back into the bottle, and anyway, why would we want to? As a comedian and movie star, he enriched our lives in a manner that couldn’t be replicated by anyone else, and his abrupt departure from Earth in the summer of 2014 created a void too upsetting to confront head-on.
Of course, we’ve never actually needed to confront it as we would the death of a close friend, since Williams’ presence in our lives existed entirely on a screen. We’ll never see him again in the flesh, but then most of us never saw him in the flesh while he was alive.
Except that’s a rational way to approach the loss of Robin Williams when, in fact, his connection with us was entirely emotional. That he died on purpose, by his own hand, somehow made the blow even more personal. It felt almost like a betrayal—an acknowledgment that his duty to us, his adoring public, had been subsumed by a private agony that he couldn’t bring himself to share with us.
As it turns out, we didn’t know him quite as well as we thought.
Looking over his credits recently, I was a bit surprised how few of his movies I’ve actually seen. That is, until I realized how few of his movies are worth seeing at all. As a rule, I follow the advice of my favorite critics unless I have an extremely compelling reason not to, and the unfortunate fact is that only a fraction of the projects Williams attached himself to were worthy of his enormous talents. I don’t know about you, but I find it rather depressing to subject myself to mediocre work by otherwise great artists.
So I’ve never bothered with Death to Smoochy—the 2002 comedy about which Roger Ebert wrote, “In all the annals of the movies, few films have been this odd, inexplicable and unpleasant”—nor have I followed up on his Teddy Roosevelt impression in all the Night at the Museum sequels. Life is short, and I’d hate my mental image of Williams as Armand Goldman or Mrs. Doubtfire to be polluted in any way.
On the other hand, I did catch 2006’s Man of the Year on cable in recent months, and was intrigued by how it both confirmed and defied this theory.
As you may or may not know, Man of the Year is a political farce, directed by Barry Levinson, with Williams as a comedian who is elected president of the United States on the strength of his straight talk and, presumably, his wit. If the conceit is a bit of a stretch, the character is not: Here, Williams is basically playing a more civically-engaged version of himself, saturating his few serious thoughts with a bottomless supply of jokes, impressions and idle observations about the absurdity of the world around him—and of course everyone in the room eats it up.
It should work, yet it doesn’t. For all the promise of its constituent parts—the cast also includes Laura Linney, Christopher Walken and my other favorite comic, Lewis Black—Man of the Year is not great cinema. It’s lame, uninspired, unfocused and, well, just not terribly clever. Like those lesser Marx Brothers movies that spent far too much time with inane romantic subplots and far too little time allowing Groucho and company to let loose and turn the joint upside down, Man of the Year plays like a stand-up special with all the interesting bits left out and replaced with a whole lot of fluff. It’s the sort of production that fails the old Gene Siskel test, “Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?”
And yet I can’t hate it—and I’ll put it on for a few minutes in between changing channels—because, dammit, it’s still Robin Williams. The fact that everything around him is junk doesn’t negate the joy of his very presence on the screen.
Indeed, Williams was among a small, elite group of performers whose humanity enabled him to transcend lousy material. For all the misfires in his career—most of which were patently obvious at the time, perhaps even to him—he never really left our good graces, since it was plain to all—through his words and his actions—that beneath the vulgar, often drug-induced zaniness, he was a decent, generous, big-hearted person who wanted nothing but to be loved. And boy, did we love him.