In the past decade, the manic, profane but good-natured fearlessness that Robin Williams achieved as a comedian has dwindled to just an on-screen glimmer. He spent most of the '90s playing saintly psychologists (Good Will Hunting), saintly doctors (Awakenings and the universally loathed Patch Adams), saintly vagabonds (The Fisher King), saintly gay nightclub owners (The Birdcage), saintly nutty professors (Flubber) and saintly fathers who dress up like old women just to stay close to their kids (Mrs. Doubtfire). Now audiences are yearning for the return of the old Williams.
There may be hope. Williams, who turns a whopping 50 in July, has begun the year starring in a movie that lets him get his comic-anarchic groove back. Unfortunately, that film is Danny DeVito's frustratingly unedgy black comedy Death to Smoochy. No matter. As Rainbow Randolph, a disgraced, deranged and ultimately pitiable kiddie-show host who has nothing but ill will for his wholesome successor (Edward Norton), Williams is the only consistently funny thing in the consistently uneven movie. When he recalls the tawdry portrait that used to hang over his penthouse fireplace ("It was very tasteful -- no bush!") or bashes a TV set while screaming about the "illegitimate spawn of Barney," the mad glint in his eye comes back.
There will be nothing to laugh about this summer, however, when Williams appears in One-Hour Photo, the stark, moody drama from debuting director Mark Romanek that was recently screened at Sundance. Williams takes a detached turn as Sy Parrish, a lonely photo technician who stalks what he considers to be a picture-perfect family. It's a creepy performance for Williams, but once again, it's also a sympathetic one. You end up feeling sorry for the poor bastard, even when he does foul shit like sneaking into the family's home when they're away and taking a dump in their bathroom.
Verizon Wireless Theater, 520 Texas Avenue
Performs 8 p.m. Thursday, April 11. $56.50 and $96.50. For tickets, call 713-629-3700.
But that's not as dark as Williams is willing to get. Word has it that he drops the sympathy act altogether and goes ass-out evil as a sadistic serial killer (we always knew it would come to this) who plays a cat-and-mouse game with an already tormented detective (Al Pacino) in Insomnia, Christopher Nolan's remake of the acclaimed Norwegian psycho-thriller.
From saintly to sinful -- the guy's got range. But the only way to see the kinetic craziness you fell in love with is to go back to Williams the comedian. It's his first tour in 15 years, and for a man who has the hyperactivity of a squirrel on No-Doz, that's just too damn long. So while you wait for Williams to burn his teddy-bear image on the big screen, see him live and in his element. In the home of the doomed Enron, the potentially doomed METRORail and the perennially doomed Anna Nicole Smith, he ought to have enough verbal artillery to send audience members from the theater with shrapnel in their legs.
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Mork would have wanted it that way.