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Despite dismal scenes, Mrs. Doubtfire suceeds

Mrs. Doubtfire
Directed by Chris Columbus.
Written by Randi Mayem Singer,
and Leslie Dixon.
Based on Alias Madame Doubtfire by Anne Fine.
Starring Robin Williams, Sally Field,
and Pierce Bronson.
Loews Cheri.

By Craig K. Chang
Staff Reporter

Mrs. Doubtfire is Robin Williams' chance at topping Dustin Hoffman's Tootsie. Instead of playing a man pretending to be a woman in order to land an acting job, Robin Williams plays Daniel Hillard, who resorts to disguising himself as a woman to spend time with his kids after a messy divorce. To be with his children is all he wants and he'll do anything for just that. Naturally, the whole movie is a vehicle for Williams to show off his whole gamut of female impersonations, but he settles for the role of a wise and multi-talented nanny from England who seems a mixture of Dame Edna and Julia Child. Even if the material around this foray to the other gender is mundane and predictable, the heart of the movie spotlights Williams' tremendous flexibility as an actor.

Daniel Hillard is an actor/comedian whose energy and comic verve never let him hold a steady job. Precisely these qualities make him appear to his wife, Miranda (Sally Field), an inadequate father and husband, even if the kids love him. But with an inevitable divorce comes limited visitation rights to his three children.

Evidently, little effort was wasted on these early scenes; perhaps everyone was rushing to see Williams play a woman. The movie just rolls through especially rote material to establish the story. We see how a marriage is torn apart because the mother hates to be the bad one while the father lets the kids do whatever they want. We watch Williams read incredibly naive lines during a dismal "I want a divorce" scene. And then a long and shameless good-bye scene between Daniel and his children. Perhaps the movie assumes we already know these characters, because, so far, nothing too enlightening has occurred.

When Daniel realizes Miranda is not going to cooperate in improving his visitation rights, the movie abandons schmaltz and kicks into the right gear -- comedy. As Williams begins to concoct a scheme to become his children's housesitter, we realize that the previously meaningless scenes were merely filler for the main attraction.

Enter Mrs. Doubtfire, part of Daniel's plot to see more of his children. Everything about her is his antithesis: She is strict, tidy, stable, and, most of all, female. Daniel's brother happens to be a make-up artist, providing a near flawless transformation between Daniel and Doubtfire. And with Williams' incredible impersonating, Mrs. Doubtfire somehow convinces even Daniel's wife and kids.

Soon every one is a happy family, and Daniel's life is finally piecing together. So, where's the conflict, the tension? Of course, the answer comes soon when Daniel and Mrs. Doubtfire have to be in two places at the same time.

Here, the movie slips into one predictable situation after another. We must endure a long scene in a restaurant, where, of course, Daniel and Mrs. Doubtfire have dinner engagements at the same time. We see how Mrs. Doubtfire begins to blend seamlessly into the family. None of these scenes are very special.

But what makes up for these traps are some of the most endearing moments speckled throughout the movie. One involves Mrs. Doubtfire's discussion with Miranda about her failed marriage. We realize that only in disguise can Daniel see the source of her unhappiness. By acting, he adopts the very values and personality hidden behind his constant comic routine that she grew tired of.

More sweetness comes from the children's television special that Daniel, as Mrs. Doubtfire, tapes for broadcast. In these few segments, we see the warmth and inner qualities of Mrs. Doubtfire, or essentially Daniel. From his performance as Doubtfire, Daniel finally demonstrates to everyone his great caring for children and their upbringing. Why else would he go to such lengths to see his children and to prove to them that he can be a good father?

Barring the more dismal scenes, Mrs. Doubtfire comes together in the end to be a testament to the misunderstood and eclectic. In order for Daniel to escape his fixed condemnation, he has to disguise himself to reveal the many qualities within him that others refuse to acknowledge. Not only does Mrs. Doubtfire improve the lives of everyone around her, she improves Daniel's.

For this reason, the movie redeems itself, managing to project genuine sweetness and to rise above the holiday "feel good" pandering it could easily have settled for.