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Pop, Pop, Fizz, Fizz

In Fathers' Day, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams need some comic relief

Gummy with heartfelt folderol and overbearingly chummy, Fathers' Day comes across like a feature-length expansion of its sniffle-and-giggle trailer. Prior to this teaming, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal had never been in a movie together -- though, along with Whoopi Goldberg, they appear together annually on the televised Comic Relief fundraiser -- so there was hope that they might rev each other into flights of inspired lunacy.

As great as they both can be, it's been a while since either was very inspiring: Williams has for the most part turned himself into a face-pulling flibbertigibbet of a family comic, a cozy nut, while Crystal was last seen ducking into Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet as the gravedigger and playing out dreams of clown-faced heartbreak and glory in Mr. Saturday Night. Right now, his best gig is hosting the Oscars, where his nimble derision acts as a cattle prod to the sluggishness.

Fathers' Day was directed by Ivan Reitman and adapted by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel from the popular French comedy Les Comperes, which was scripted by the vacuously prolific Francis Veber. In other words, it's another one of those Gallic flyaway jobs retrofitted by and for Hollywood. I don't think there has ever been a good Veber-to-Hollywood movie, in part because the Veber originals, which seem to have been concocted with Hollywood in mind anyway, weren't that wonderful to begin with. From Buddy Buddy and Partners (which Veber himself scripted) to The Man with One Red Shoe (remade from The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe) and Three Fugitives (which Veber directed), the stateside Veber variations are gimmicky little souffles that refuse to rise. (The Birdcage, which does have some merit, was adapted from a script Veber co-wrote for La Cage aux Folles, but that script was drawn almost entirely from the stage play by Jean Poiret.)

I realize that most movies these days aren't noted for the logic of their narrative, but Fathers' Day is so weirdly detached from the strictures of good storytelling that it's almost Dada. Dale Putley (Robin Williams) is a big fur ball of anxieties living in cluttery oblivion in San Francisco. Jack Lawrence (Billy Crystal) is a thrice-married, sleekly successful Los Angeles attorney. Seventeen years ago, each had a fling with Colette (Nastassja Kinski), now upper-middle-class, happily married and the mother of a 16-year-old, Scott (Charlie Hofheimer), who has run off with the entourage of a punk band. Colette is frantic to get her son back, so -- and here's where the logic begins to fade -- she calls upon her two ex-flings, who have never met, to track him down. Their motivation: Each is made to believe that Scott is really his son.

They spend the rest of the movie trying various comedy-team antics on us, Crystal playing straight man to Williams's dithering doofus. It might have been funnier the other way around, especially after Williams demonstrated in The Birdcage that he could play the straight man (so to speak) without effacing himself.

But Crystal straight is Crystal blank. As a sharp lawyer with a penchant for head-butting bad guys, he's a bit too smirkily self-satisfied. Like Eddie Murphy in his Beverly Hills Cop movies, Crystal yearns to be a super-slick, vainglorious tough guy. And nothing kills a comic persona faster than a strong dose of vanity.

The teamwork between Williams and Crystal in Fathers' Day is the kind of forced bonhomie that you often see between guests on talk shows or sitcoms. It's unbecoming and condescending. Why is it that so often now our great movie comedians feel the need to play down to us? When they try that, what they're really doing is putting themselves down.

Fathers' Day.
Directed by Ivan Reitman. With Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and Nastassja Kinski.

Rated PG-13.
101 minutes.

 
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