I’ve decided, for no other reason than it’s there, to screen, or in most cases, to re-screen all 100 movies on AFI’s 100 Laughs list and to report back to you, faithful readers, on how the movie has stood the test of time. Or the test of my own set of preconceived notions and biases. Whichever come first.
I’m going to do the list from 100 to 1, because I’d like to take the long day’s journey into comedy from good to the sublime, and if I take that journey, I might as well share it with friends.
So we start off at 100 with Good Morning Vietnam (1987), starring Robin Williams, Forrest Whitaker, Robert Wuhl, and Bruno Kirby, directed by Barry Levinson, with the screenplay by Mitch Markowitz. Although he had been in a few movies prior to this, this was Robin Williams’ breakthrough role, and as such surprised a lot of people, who still just saw him as Mork on Mork and Mindy. What many didn’t realize was that Williams was a classically trained actor who had studies at the prestigious Julliard conservsatory and would later go on to excel in dramas such as The Fisher King and Good Will Hunting.
While the movie eventually descends into melodrama, it’s energized by Williams’ manic monologues as the Army D. J. Adrian Cronauer, all of which were ad libbed by Williams (according to IMDB). Another high point is the fresh-faced supporting performance by a very young and charming Whitaker.
What did you think of Good Morning Vietnam?
This is great! I’ll try to watch these movies with you. So many classic comedy gems to learn from!
I adored this movie exactly because it allowed Robin Williams to be the maniac that I already adored and the sad-eyed witness we all suspected. I think it may have been the first film I’d seen that proved you could have two wildly opposing tones in a single film and it works. Now, if I can just remind people reading one of my screenplays of this.
I loved the movie. And since I’m also a Baby Boomer, I really identified with the setting of the Vietnam War and all the rock music on the soundtrack.
Terrific blog, Steve!
Robin Williams was immensely likable, certainly one of America’s most gifted improvisational comedians. ‘Mork and Mindy’ notwithstanding, our first real glimpse of the true extent of Williams’ manic genius was his legendary 1979 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, during which poor Cavett completely lost control of the show. I was too young at the time to appreciate all of Williams’s rapid-fire references, but he was blazingly funny. Much funnier than ‘Mork and Mindy,’ which I found grating and impossible to sit through, even as a kid.
Robin Williams was America’s court jester, with a speed-of-light wit, and he was beloved by millions. However, I confess to the treasonous notion that most of his films were oddly disappointing. It’s not that they were necessarily bad–though some of them were–it’s that they simply weren’t nearly as good as they should have been, and they should’ve been bloody brilliant. Yet even the best of them fall curiously short of the mark.
The problem wasn’t Williams. The problem was the material. Williams was an anarchic, stream-of-consciousness harlequin, and Hollywood didn’t know what to do with him, so they kept shoehorning him into clunky, formulaic vehicles with mawkish love interests and maudlin subplots, the result of which was that the funniest man in America appeared in some of the most forgettable comedies ever made, and never won an Oscar except for a minor supporting role in a drama. In a just world, that would be an actionable offense.
Most Robin Williams vehicles are so weak, they would never have been made if his name hadn’t been attached to them, and the only time they really work are those scenes in which he is allowed to cut loose. ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ is a textbook example. The only time the film transcends its own banality and truly comes alive are those scenes in which Barry Levinson started the camera and told Williams to do whatever he wanted. That’s when the magic happened.
Apart from the execrable “Death to Smoochy,” Williams’ later, darker roles were among his most interesting. It was fun to see him playing way against type as a manipulative villain in ‘Insomnia,’ and he was creepily brilliant in ‘One Hour Photo.’ One wonders at the fun Williams might’ve had had he been cast as the Joker in Tim Burton’s ‘Batman.’
Shortly before Williams was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, he was planning to do a reboot of ‘Theatre of Blood,’ a black comedy/horror film in which Vincent Price played Edward Lionheart, a hammy Shakespearean actor who sets about killing off the critics who gave him bad reviews, using death scenes from Shakespearean plays. Price once stated that it was the greatest role of his career, and I suspect that it would’ve been Williams’ as well. Sadly, we’ll never know.
Jack, I completely agree–I loved Insomnia and his later, darker roles. And the idea of Williams as the Joker, or one of the other Batman villains–brilliant!
Like your idea for a journey into comedy and sharing it with friends.
I always avoided this movie – brought up on Mash and fed up with Veitnam – until Robin died and the French newspapers where I live all only mentioned this film. I guess Mork and Mindy never arrived in France! I did finally watch it will pleasure, but apart from a few scenes, I agree it is good entry to top 100. Many better comedies to come on the list!
David, I’m going to be in France with my workshop next month. What do you think is France’s favorite American comedy, and what in the last 10 years was the best French comedy?