American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
The world of the standup comedian is filled with a special desperation. He needs to win your approval at every single instant. If one joke goes bad, a silence falls, and up on the stage that silence sounds like a roar of disapproval. He will say anything to make you laugh. It should not be surprising, then, that standup comedy is the worst possible training for an actor. The case of Robin Williams is a good example.
On the stage, he is very funny. On television and in certain movies, where he is given a well-defined character and forced to play him, he is not only funny but can be moving, as he was in "Moscow on the Hudson." But left to his own devices, he will go for the quick laugh every time and create a shambles out of his character, the plot, the movie and anyone within firing range. I wonder what he's trying to do. Make the camera crew laugh? Consider "Club Paradise," Williams's new movie. He plays a Chicago fireman who wins a big disability settlement and moves to the Caribbean to run a shabby resort club. The movie opens with the big fire where he risks his life and is blown out of a third-floor window. After the credits, the rest of the movie takes place at the resort. The credits aren't long, but they are long enough for the Williams character to drop every shred of credibility as a Chicago fireman.
He develops one of those Canadian quasi-British accents, starts with the one-liners, makes small talk with the British governor general, trades quips with soci ety people and looks as if he would use a whoopee cushion if he had one. There are scenes that play like he's standing around trying to think of something clever to say. He sometimes seems to be the movie's guest host instead of its star.
The film was directed by Harold Ramis, the onetime Second City resident. He made a big contribution to "Ghostbusters" as co-writer and star, but he has been more erratic as a director ("Caddyshack," "National Lampoon's Summer Vacation"). He comes out of a revue tradition, where you try for something terrific right now and forget about what lies minutes in the future. Maybe he encouraged Williams; in "Caddyshack," it seemed to work when Rodney Dangerfield did his standup act.