It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Like most of the great stand-up comedians, Robin Williams has always kept a certain wall between himself and his audience. In concert, he tries on a bewildering series of accents and characters; he’s a gifted chameleon who turns into whatever makes the audience laugh. But who is inside? With George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, Eddie Murphy, we have an idea - or think we do. A lot of their humor depends on confessional autobiography. With Williams, the wall remains impenetrable. Like Groucho Marx, he uses comedy as a strategy for personal concealment.
Williams’ best movies (“Popeye,” “The World According to Garp,” “Moscow on the Hudson”) are the ones where he is given a well-written character to play and held to the character by a strong director. In his other movies, you can see him trying to do his stand-up act on the screen, trying to use comedy to conceal not only himself from the audience - but even his character. The one-liners and ad-libs distance him from the material and from his fellow actors. Hey, he’s only a visitor here.
What is inspired about “Good Morning, Vietnam,” which contains far and away the best work Williams has ever done in a movie, is that his own tactics are turned against him. The director, Barry Levinson, has created a character who is a stand-up comic - he’s a fast-talking disc jockey on Armed Forces Radio during the Vietnam War, directing a nonstop monologue at the microphone. There is absolutely no biographical information about this character. We don’t know where he comes from, what he did before the war, whether he has ever been married, what his dreams are, what he’s afraid of. Everything in his world is reduced to material for his program.
Levinson used Mitch Markowitz’s script as a starting point for a lot of Williams’ monologues, and then let the comedian improvise. Then he put together the best parts of many different takes to create sequences that are undeniably dazzling and funny. Williams is a virtuoso.