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At the start of Marina Zenovich’s Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, interviewer James Lipton asks Williams what many have wondered: Does he, as his quicksilver monologues seem to prove, simply think faster than the rest of us? The actor cackles for a moment, as if he wished the explanation were so simple, before breaking into a signature quick-change rant.
Viewers will walk away from this film without knowing the answer to Lipton’s question — are the mechanics of Williams’ intense and unpredictable riffs even knowable? — but they will likely be refreshed by a cleansing exposure to his talent, a film that doesn’t shy from the well-known darkness in the star’s life but prefers to remind us how funny he could be. It should be well received when it airs on HBO.
The best doc Zenovich has made since the first of her two looks at Roman Polanski, Wanted and Desired, this one follows an earlier, less successful portrait of a comic trailblazer who struggled with drugs and booze, 2013’s Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic. As in that film, Zenovich doesn’t talk to many people we might guess she would. Williams’ second and third wives are absent; only the oldest of his three children participates; and fewer significant showbiz friends/costars than expected drop in. Here, though, the omissions feel less like a game of access politics (“I won’t do it if she’s involved”) than an understandable reluctance to discuss broken marriages and addiction in the shadow of Williams’ untimely 2014 death.
And those who do make it onscreen do more than just praise the comedian. They can sometimes set a scene or reveal character with impressive economy. Describing the heady, collegial California comedy scene in which he first saw Williams perform, David Letterman somehow says everything he needs to by noting that, in those days, the state was led by a governor who was dating Linda Ronstadt. (He goes on to say that he and those in his circle started off skeptical of Williams but soon concluded he could do things mortals couldn’t.)
Zenovich sketches young Robin’s childhood — is it not surprising that he was a clean-cut student and enthusiastic athlete before discovering improv and the theater? — emphasizing the impact that being an only child had on him. (He actually had two half-brothers, we learn, both of whom were raised in separate households.) Mom was always a cut-up (we see some of her disarming antics), but Dad was stone-faced enough that, when a Jonathan Winters bit on The Tonight Show made him laugh, Robin took note. Years later, Winters would surreally play Williams’ son on his breakthrough sitcom.
Williams went with a theater troupe to the Edinburgh Festival, then arrived at Juilliard at the same time as Christopher Reeve. He knew he’d discovered something when he tried out his first bit of physical comedy in a classroom and got a laugh out of stodgy old Juilliard head John Houseman.
From here he went to Los Angeles, making the aforementioned big impression on stand-up comics in the know. But how did he get the break that made him rich? Things were getting desperate, story-wise, on Happy Days when series creator Garry Marshall asked his Star Wars-obsessed son, Scott, what could help the show. An alien, the boy replied. “Scotty wants a spaceman,” Marshall told his staff, and Mork from Ork was born.
The film’s scenes chronicling the Mork and Mindy sensation are among its most enjoyable, offering both outtakes of Williams’ ad-libs unfit to air and warm recollections from co-star Pam Dawber. But there’s a lot of personal and career ground to cover from this point out.
Though it’s a little reductive in assessing Williams’ highs and lows on the big screen (they’re pretty much all highs, Zenovich seems to think), the film gives us enjoyable time-outs to look behind the scenes at landmark performances like those in Awakenings and One Hour Photo. Mark Romanek, director of the latter, is one of too few interviewees here who had the experience of directing the actor, and he offers some of the doc’s most meaningful insights into his methods.
We hear early on that Williams was far quieter in his personal life than when he was around an audience. But he certainly seems to have worked for laughs when hanging out with Billy Crystal, a close friend who gets lots of screen time here.
Crystal helps bridge the narrative from the height of Williams’ stardom through his decline. He suffered lapses from sobriety, underwent heart surgery and was finally diagnosed with Parkinson’s. After his suicide in 2014, an autopsy revealed that the Parkinson’s was a misdiagnosis: He actually had Lewy body dementia, which was almost surely a factor in his suicide. The movie doesn’t discuss this, offering just a clip of filmmaker and friend Bobcat Goldthwaite mentioning the disorder and saying that Williams’ “brain was giving him misinformation.” Instead, Zenovich offers loved ones’ sadness with about as few maudlin shots as she can get away with. She’s clearly eager to refocus our attention on the talents of a man who, according to son Zak, only felt successful when pleasing other people.
Production company: HBO Documentary Films
Distributor: Jigsaw Productions
Director: Marina Zenovich
Producers: Alex Gibney, Shirel Kozak, Nancy Abraham
Executive producers: David Steinberg, Kristen Vaurio, Marina Zenovich, Sheila Nevins
Directors of photography: Nick Higgins, Jenna Rosher, Thorsten Thielow, Wolfgang Held
Editors: Greg Finton, Poppy Das
Composer: Adam Dorn
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Doc Premieres)
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