“Mrs. Doubtfire” is one of those movies my generation probably feels nostalgic for. It’s a Robin Williams comedy with three adorable children he’s fighting to keep. It’s one of those movie you have to rewatch for a nostalgia check, like a Disney cartoon you loved or “History of the World, Part One.” And, like movies you often watch for a nostalgia check, it doesn’t hold up to the fond memories.
Daniel Hillard (Williams) is a irresponsible father whose behavior has been continually annoying his wife, Miranda (Sally Field), until a raucous birthday party for their son, Chris (Matthew Lawrence), is the last straw. They divorce and Miranda is granted full custody of Chris, Lydia (Lisa Jakub) and Natalie (Mara Wilson). Daniel, desperate to spend more time with the kids, decides to answer an ad for a housekeeper and pose as kindly English lady Mrs. Doubtfire, with help from his brother, Frank (Harvey Fierstein). Meanwhile, Miranda reconnects with old friend Stuart (Pierce Brosnan), whom Daniel despises because he’s not over Miranda.
There are very clear problems with the comedy and jokes made in the script, largely because they haven’t aged well and are, quite frankly, very offensive. But the two biggest problems are with the protagonist, Daniel, and the length of the film.
First I’ll get to the length of the film. “Mrs. Doubtfire” is more than two hours long and there’s a lot that could have been cut out. At this point I want to already penalize any film longer than “Myra Breckinridge” because one of the few things that film has going for it is it’s only 94 minutes long. There are giant portions of the film that exist for very trivial reasons. There’s an overly long bit of the film where Williams does a bunch of voices for a social worker. There’s a montage of Williams doing things as Mrs. Doubtfire with the kids, set to “Dude Looks Like a Lady” that feels unnecessary. There’s an entire scene with the social worker that plays like a bad farce that goes on for too long and feels horribly contrived. If you cut those scenes out, I feel fairly confident the film would be under two hours in length.
It also suffers from odd pacing. Although it’s understandable the film needs to set up the ending, everything in this film takes place in the last 45 minutes. Ultimately, very little happens in the first 75 minutes other than a lot of shenanigans with the occasional plot point. As a result the film is a slog until this sudden shot of frantic energy is injected right at the end for the climax.
But really, the core problem with this film is Daniel Hillard. It is entirely likely I will not watch a film for “I Can’t Believe I Just Watch This!” with a character as eminently punchable as Daniel Hillard. Tris was boring,
Ryan Phillippe Regan Pierce a sad-sack, Riddick a fascinating mercernary and Myra Breckinridge an over-the-top caricature in a performance where more scenery is chewed than Ian Barford in “Catch Hell.” Daniel Hillard is a jag bag who is thoroughly unlikable. He takes advantage of so many people in the movie, including his brother, the make-up artist, who helps him get the mask and look of Mrs. Doubtfire, but they first have to do a crazy montage–which could have also been cut–even though Daniel has already established Mrs. Doubtfire will be a kindly, elderly British woman. He becomes belligerent to his wife and then wonders why she doesn’t want him spending time with the kids. And then, after it is revealed he has been posing as Mrs. Doubtfire, he gets mad at Miranda for him having to do supervised visits with the kids, once a week. You just committed fraud, broke the custody agreement and almost killed an old friend of Miranda’s. Do you wonder why you have to do supervised visits?
And although it’s nice, and honestly still a little progressive, for a film to have a male character who is crazy about the ex instead of a female character, the hatred Daniel feels towards Stuart is bizarre. Stuart is, ultimately, nothing but nice towards Mrs. Doubtfire, even if a comment is made about her accent. Daniel responds by telling his children, while Mrs. Doubtfire, that, oh, Stuart had liposuction. Then Daniel has to do a walk-by fruiting–which would be a great name for a gay street gang–and assault Stuart with a lime. Finally, he tries to sabotage a romantic relationship between Stuart and Miranda by telling Stuart Miranda has crabs and then putting pepper, which Stuart is allergic to, in his jambalaya.
(By the way, this is a film released in the 1993 when people treated allergies as an incredibly serious issue. It’s not like now where you say, “Oh I have a food allergy” and people scoff at you because of pseudoscience blogs saying, “Say you have an allergy so you can avoid this food I told you is evil” and give you food with those ingredients all the time. Why is Daniel shocked by Stuart’s reaction to the pepper?)
The biggest problem with the film is a lot of the humor now feels incredibly dated and very offensive. It’s not just humor you really can’t get away with now–like half of the jokes in “Blazing Saddles”–it’s humor that is in poor taste. The premise of the film involves a man who cross-dresses to be close to his kids. That’s fine. There are plenty of perfectly good movies involving drag and cross-dressing. One of those films even has Robin Williams. But there’s rampant jokes that at worst come off as transphobic, such as one of the fake nannies Williams poses as before calling as Mrs. Doubtfire being a Russian woman saying she doesn’t work with male children because “she used to be [male].” First of all, what the hell is with that line? Is this going back to some bizarre stereotype transgender women are crazed misandrists a la Myra Breckinridge? Second of all, the joke reads as, “Oh, ha ha, someone who used to be male is a woman and would consider being a nanny.” What? It’s cringeworthy and, in a lengthy montage of oddballs Williams creates to answer the ad, is something that would have been better left on the cutting room floor.
There’s also a bunch of other bizarre moments of “Oh, ha ha, a man in a dress” or jokes are made regarding gender expression and identity that simply don’t land. This includes moments like Frank expressing joy when Daniel arrives asking to look like a man, which does feel like a joke and it only really works because of Fierstein’s delivery. The bus driver at one point sees Daniel’s hairy leg under his Mrs. Doubtfire outfit, which leads to a very creepy come-on from a driver. And why don’t any of the passenger’s yell, “Hey bub, I got a kid with a fever and I need to get home. Get moving”? I want to yell that at a bus driver when they wait even 30 seconds before moving from a bus stop.
One scene that has an incredibly uncomfortable feel now is when Chris sees Daniel peeing, standing up, while dressed as Mrs. Doubtfire. He runs into Lydia’s room and tells her to call the police because Mrs. Doubtfire has a penis. At this point, they find out Mrs. Doubtfire is their father, but it’s very uncomfortable to know that today there are thousands of transgender women who could face serious problems if that situation happened in real life. Here it’s meant as a humorous moment, complete with a son horrifically saying, “I saw everything” about his dad’s junk.
The film also features the Standard Butch-Femme ’90s Gay Couple and an odd joke about how many British Pakistanis there are in London, coming in the form of a puppet on the TV show at the end of the film saying people in England speak Pakistani. Normally, I would angrily point out people in Pakistan speak English and Urdu, but this film has managed to drain me of my outrage over art.
What the film has going for it is Chris Columbus did a nice job directing the film. There’s nothing revolutionary about it, but there’s nothing incredibly bad. It’s just nice. What he does manage to do is get fantastic performances from the actors, right down to an adorable Wilson. It keeps the film from being incredibly painful to watch, it just is a film that fails to entertain.
It’s not surprising this is a film that managed to be incredibly successful and a beloved family movie. When it was released it was during the fury of films with transphobia–“Silence of the Lambs,” “The Crying Game,” “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective”–and this has a bittersweet story about family. But unfortunately the film’s most sympathetic characters are Miranda, the bread winner, and Stuart, the rich British man who adores Miranda and her children, taking them away from Daniel. As a result of bad writing and dated gender politics, “Mrs. Doubtfire” is a misfire on many levels, never reaching the level it could be with such a phenomenal cast.
(And I didn’t even get into how implausible this film is and all of the issues with reality. Really, those are minor quibbles compared to everything else in the film.)