Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On 'Toys,' Robin Williams and the birth of a cinephile

1993 was the year I decided to become a cinephile. I’d always loved watching movies with my family like any kid, but now I was a teenager and a regular reader of Roger Ebert’s column in the Thursday newspaper. I made up my mind that I was going to start seeking out movies that challenged me and gave me insights into truly appreciating film. That wasn’t the easiest thing to do in Sparta, Wisconsin in the mid-‘90s. We had three decent video shops and the usual array of gas station and supermarket video sections, but classics and under-the-radar titles were hard to come by. In lieu of critic-approved, capital-A “Art Films,” I made do with whatever offbeat or indie flicks (Miramax productions, mainly) made it to my local shelves. Early in high school I claimed Spike Lee’s Crooklyn as my favorite film. I’d go to bat for Mixed Nuts as the most underrated film in the Steve Martin canon. I was almost certainly the only 15-year-old boy in Wisconsin who went to sleep beneath a poster of the Ted Danson coming-of-age dramedy Pontiac Moon every night.

But before any of that, there was Toys. Toys wasn’t an indie movie by any means. It was intended to be a holiday blockbuster for the whole family. In that regard it was every bit the failure it was always doomed to be. It’s just too damn weird an endeavor to have been embraced by the public at large. It’s borderline unthinkable that a day-glo story of a manic man-child and his cognitively disabled sister fighting to save a toy factory from a military takeover would even make it past a table read, let alone be granted the budget to realize a litany of massive, surrealist sets and a cast of top-tier stars, but such was the power of Barry Levinson in the early ‘90s. The result was a ludicrous mélange of lunatic designs and ideas with the unhinged energy of Terry Gilliam, the unlimited budget of Steven Spielberg and the unfortunate sentimentality of Chris Columbus.

It also had LL Cool J disguised as a sofa.

I first saw Toys at my pal Nathan’s house, viewed on his parents' dying VCR. The tracking was shot and the color faded in and out, no way at all to watch a movie that depends so heavily on a striking color palette. Nonetheless, I was mesmerized. It felt like something that shouldn’t exist, and I was delighted that it did. I watched it again with my own family at my first opportunity and was again enthralled with the churning, multicolored gears; the indoor roller coaster hallways; the life-sized dollhouses and mechanical duck crossings and endless, billowing fields of grass. It wasn’t like anything else, and where I came from anything that wasn’t like anything else was something worth loving.

And the cast. The cast of Toys is something else. Michael Gambon. Joan Cusack. (Never better – I had such a pubescent crush on her in this movie.) LL Cool J. Donald O’Connor. Jack Warden. Robin Wright. Yeardley Smith. Debi Mazar. (Remember Debi Mazar?) Shelley Desai. Jamie Foxx. Wendy from Wendy and Lisa. And of course, at the core of it, Robin Williams. How could the motor-mouthed man-child heir to the world’s most whimsical toy company have been played by anyone but Robin Williams?

Late 1992 was pretty close to peak Robin Williams. He’d redefined Disney movies earlier that year with Aladdin and had already cemented himself as a dramatic actor with Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King. He’d anchored a high-profile flop with Hook, sure, but he was only a year away from the zeitgeist-smasher of Mrs. Doubtfire. America was on the back end of a solid 10-year stretch wherein Robin Williams was comedy. I was a little too young to have memories of his coke-fueled standup heyday but I’d grown up loving him as a movie star. It was the early ‘90s. Who hadn’t? For as out-there as the movie is conceptually, Toys finds him giving a quintessentially Robin Williams performance, all funny voices and rapid-fire babble sprinkled with earnest monologues. Somehow Williams never overpowers the movie the way he could at his most unfettered (although he does cross over into irritation at times - when he manages to wedge in both his Michael Jackson and his Gandhi impressions, for instance). Maybe it’s because Levinson is throwing just as much brain candy at the walls as Williams is and the two creative forces balance each other out. Any which way, I count Toys as one of the best uses of Robin Williams ever.

For whatever reason I’d always glommed onto Williams’ least-loved roles. If you’d asked me in 1993 to name my three favorite Robin Williams movies, I’d have told you Toys, Popeye and The Survivors. It’s probably been 20 years since I’ve seen The Survivors so I can’t tell you if that one holds up – although it’s hard for me to imagine that Robin Williams and Walter Matthau as hapless survivalists circa 1983 would be anything but funny – but the other two are still at the top of my list. Robert Altman’s Popeye has undergone a critical redemption in recent years and finally gets some of the praise it so richly deserves – seriously, Williams as Popeye is some of the finest casting in Hollywood history. Poor Toys, on the other hand, is remembered primarily as Barry Levinson’s greatest folly, to the extent that it’s remembered at all.

Watching it again two decades later, on the day that Robin Williams died, I can understand some of the animosity. It’s sometimes mawkish, sometimes heavy-handed, sometimes outright annoying. The blending of childlike wonder and adult themes is uneasy and occasionally a little creepy. But by god, it’s just as weird a beast as it was in 1993. There’s nothing safe about it. It’s visually creative and stimulating to an insane degree, especially for a pre-CGI movie. The story goes surprisingly dark but never sacrifices a genuine spirit of whimsy. The sets are astonishing. Joan Cusack is still a revelation. And Robin Williams is a force of nature, bouncing off the walls both figuratively and literally in a performance that seriously could not have been given by any other human. It’s a movie that failed at so many of the things it set out to do but succeeded in teaching me the power of a beautiful failure. For all its flaws, Toys was essential in making me a lover of cinema.

Plus the soundtrack features a pretty cool Thomas Dolby song.