Despite a few laughs and a sincere message about the Army as an alternative for the floundering educational system, "Renaissance Man" is a surprising misfire from director Penny Marshall, who has been on a roll with "Big," "Awakenings" and "A League of Their Own."
Flabby, overlong and meandering, "Renaissance Man" falters because Marshall is looking at the pieces but not the whole, despite the usual reliable ensemble performances you expect in her films.
Danny DeVito stars as an out-of-work advertising executive whose life is spiraling downhill. He's divorced, his daughter is angry at him and he can't find work.
Then one day at the unemployment office, he's offered a teaching position. He doesn't really have the necessary training, but he does have a master's degree - enough to get him hired on by the U.S. Army as a civilian instructor for a group of eight recruits considered by the military to be borderline washouts because they are "dumb."
Naturally, as DeVito gets to know them individually, he comes to realize they aren't dumb - they're just disenfranchised. They've never had any real education or any serious discipline or any worthwhile opportunities.
What finally crystalizes his work with them, however, is his own love for Shakespeare. When DeVito begins to share the Bard - specifically "Hamlet" - with his students, attempting to make it accessible and understandable, each begins to learn, gain confidence and grow.
It's not a bad idea, and first-time screenwriter Jim Burnstein, who based the film on his own experiences, comes up with a number of amusing moments along the way. But he also comes up with some wildly improbable and overplotted ideas, as his story shoots off in every imaginable direction.
If that's not enough, Marshall lays on the sentiment with a trowel, without building enough real drama to justify the dramatic shifts. There are illogical story hooks, silly comedy bits and unlikely twists at almost every turn, as if this were a skit film. When the recruits do a Hamlet rap number together, Marshall's true aim becomes obvious - to hook the MTV generation at any expense. When one of them recites a lengthy soliloquy in the rain, however, which prompts a tear from his drill sergeant, the film becomes hopelessly artificial.
If the film were more cohesive, these elements could probably be more easily forgiven. As it is, "Renaissance Man" winds up a pile of underdeveloped ideas.
Still, there is some fun in watching DeVito's character have as much trouble adjusting to the military environment as his students. And the eight soldiers are also all well-drawn, with fine performances from each of the actors, including Mark Wahlberg (a.k.a. rap star "Marky Mark") in his film debut.
There is also good support from Gregory Hines as a tough drill sergeant, as well as the usually villainous James Remar as the company commander and the venerable Cliff Robertson as the base commander.