Film review: Mrs. Doubtfire

Published: Sunday, Nov. 28 1993 12:00 a.m. MST

Robin Williams does an older version of "Tootsie" in "Mrs. Doubtfire," which blatantly steals a number of very specific elements from the classic Dustin Hoffman comedy of more than a decade ago.

There's no question that this film was tailored to Williams' talent for improvisation, and there are several scenes where director Chris Columbus obviously just lets his cameras roll as Williams does his wacky thing.

When that happens, "Mrs. Doubtfire" is very funny.

And as with "Tootsie," there are also some serious themes addressed here. But unlike "Tootsie," "Mrs. Doubtfire" tends to bog down during those moments — and there are far too many of them.

And despite the PG-13 rating — and the ads, which scream "family movie!" — much of the language is too blue for children.

Williams plays a San Francisco actor who has a talent for voice work, but his reputation for being difficult causes him to be perpetually unemployed. His wife (Sally Field) is a successful designer and they have three adorable kids.

But at home, Williams is a bigger kid than the kids, and Field is tired of being the villain who has to bring order to their home. So, when he brings a menagerie — including a pony — right into their house one afternoon for a birthday party, Field loses it and files for divorce.

Williams is so attached to his children that a court ruling that he can see them only on weekends is devastating, so when Field advertises for a housekeeper, he comes up with a bizarre scheme to be able to see them every day.

Williams approaches his brother (Harvey Fierstein), a gay makeup artist, for a matronly makeover. Then, adopting a vague Scottish brogue, Williams is transformed into a virtual Mary Poppins, albeit the size of a football player.

Ingratiating himself to the family in this new guise, and taking care of the household chores for the first time, Williams becomes more responsible and domesticated, applying his newfound talents to his own bachelor pad as well. And, of course, he gradually becomes a better person as a woman than he ever was as a man.

Some of these scenes are clever, but the entire plot seems designed to simply set up two major comic sequences, the first with Williams being confronted in his home by a social worker, as he is forced to become a quick-change artist to play both himself and Mrs. Doubtfire, and the second during a climactic restaurant scene, where he must be Mrs. Doubtfire at his family's table and then return to his true persona while dining with his new boss. These fast-and-frantic, door-slamming farcical moments are highlights, to be sure, though some of the quieter scenes with Mrs. Doubtfire at home with the children are more satisfying.

The cast is very good, with the three kids (Lisa Jakub, Matthew Lawrence, Mara Wilson) quite spirited and charming, Robert Prosky turning in a solid supporting role as Williams' boss and the husky-voiced Fierstein as Williams' brother. Field is excellent but has little to do — which becomes especially evident during the restaurant scene, when she is finally allowed to get a laugh. And Pierce Brosnan, as a hunky guy from Field's past who pursues her again, is much more rounded and likable than the audience may expect in a film like this.

Curiously, though "Mrs. Doubtfire" has something to say about the devastation of divorce on the kids, and how fathers should make the effort to remain close to their children, there is nothing in the film that specifically addresses Williams' feelings for Field. Sure, it's important to love your kids — but isn't it equally important to love your spouse?

And Williams' more serious speechifying is milked and milked and milked, until the sentiment is far too thickly piled up. A trip back to the editing room could have made "Mrs. Doubtfire" a much better effort. (The film is also too long for its lightweight material — more than 2 hours!)

Still, the audience will likely enjoy the good stuff so much that they will easily overlook the film's weaknesses.

Let's face it, when Williams is at the top of his game, there's no one funnier. And he's often at the top of his game here.

"Mrs. Doubtfire" is rated PG-13 for some vulgar gags, profanity and mild comic violence.