The security-blanket movies, the thumb-in-the-mouth movies, the ones that we use to soothe and compensate—that’s an interesting critical category, is it not? I have been rescued many times by Mrs. Doubtfire. Scooped out, gurgling, from sloppy nights, dubious mornings, and bottomless afternoons. Mrs. Doubtfire has never failed me. More than once, in the reduced-pressure emotion canister of a transatlantic flight, I have shed warm tears watching this movie; I have spilled wetly over my little armrests. What can this mean? Wherefore these expansions, these strange consolations? Mrs. Doubtfire is a crowd-pleaser, a mass-market panderer. In the chronology of great Robin Williams movies, it sits like a carbuncle of banality between The Fisher King (1991) and Good Will Hunting (1997). The broad strokes and gaudy palette of director Chris “Home Alone” Columbus, the terrible soundtrack—why do I love it so?
Because. Because it’s wonderful. And because now, and only now, I begin to see that Mrs. Doubtfire is the happy-sad performance of Williams’s career, a masterpiece comic turn in which his linguistic voltage, his madcap mimetic gift, his soulfulness, and his eerie, emptied-out humility are perfectly rationed and combined.
In case you haven’t seen it 83 times: Williams plays Daniel Hillard, an out-of-work voice-over actor and just-divorced father of three driven temporarily insane by the limited access he now has to his children. Disguising himself as a matronly English woman—full drag, fake teeth, latex mask, and all—Daniel inveigles his way back into the household as the children’s nanny: Mrs. Doubtfire joins the family. What a pitch. What a premise. Could anyone other than Robin Williams have pulled it off? Dustin Hoffman, 11 years earlier, had been superb in Tootsie, even achieving a sort of fragile, flaming glamour as Dorothy Michaels, the transvestite creation of another unemployed actor, Michael Dorsey. But Euphegenia Doubtfire is something else entirely: her pearls, her cardigans, her formidable bogus bosom. Her face steaming blandly with benignity like a plate of mashed potatoes while her small eyes glitter behind the panes of her granny glasses. “I’m not a therapist,” she tells Daniel’s ex-wife, the high-flying Miranda (played with considerable nuance by Sally Field). “I just see what I see.” She is bulky, downy, a soft-focus bouncer. Though she is theoretically English, Williams plays her with an absurd Scottish accent, a padded brogue with lots of cooing and hooting and small satirical cries that rise from her like puffs of talcum powder. Beneath all this, the verbal sallies are nonstop. “What a lovely home you have,” she tells Miranda. “Did you decorate this yourself?” Miranda confesses that she did. “Oh, it reeks of taste!” says Mrs. Doubtfire. When Miranda, getting ready for a date with the oily Stu (a magnificent Pierce Brosnan), asks Mrs. Doubtfire to help her choose between two dresses, she gets no help at all: “They’re both too brazen, dear. They cry harlot.”