“He was like the light that never knew how to turn itself off,” recalls comedian Lewis Black in the engaging new documentary, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind.
The two-hour love and laugh-fest, directed by Emmy® Award-winner Marina Zenovich, debuts tonight, July 16, 2018, on HBO, at 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates in the days and weeks ahead and the film’s availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate streaming platforms.)
The film travels a fine line between hilarity and heartbreak. There are the requisite “witnesses”–Lewis Black and a cadre of fellow A-list comedians; Robin Williams’ first wife, Valerie Valardi; their son, Zak; and Robin’s half- brother, McLaren–who revisit the good times and not-so-good times spent with their pal, colleague, husband, father and brother, respectively.
But as Robin Williams’ life and career progressed rapidly into super stardom, detoured into depression, was stalled by addictions and tragically flatlined by physical illness, sober reflections from pals David Letterman, Billy Crystal, Pam Dawber and Steve Martin predominantly land near the climax of this long film. For the most part, the film, its star player and his fellow comedians provide more than enough to laugh about.
Williams’ outtakes were and continue to be hilarious. They are highlights of this film. His off-script shenanigans during weekly tapings of ABC-TV’s Mork & Mindy (1978-82) extended the process for an unprecedented three hours, compelled producers to add a fourth camera to the mix, and exploded audience demand for tickets. Outtakes from Mrs. Doubtfire and an episode of Sesame Street are also highlights.
It was common knowledge that Robin Williams idolized comedian Jonathan Winters, who was also a favorite of Williams’ dad. A vintage black and white clip revisiting Winters’ inventive shtick with a stick routine on The Tonight Show, then hosted by Jack Paar, is cleverly paired with an outtake from an episode of Sesame Street during which Williams attempts to explore and share a stick with Elmo. It’s clear that Robin Williams and Elmo were a match made in Heaven, as were Williams and Koko, the language savvy gorilla, who had a memorable encounter with Williams as well. Unfortunately, images from that tête-à- tête only turn up in a closing photo montage.
Williams was a Juilliard alum and did land on the Great White Way or close to it, via Lincoln Center. Steve Martin recalls the duo’s stint on the boards in a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. A grainy clip captures the offbeat performance of the two wild and crazy guys (Martin and Williams) as they try to maintain their focus on the playwrights’ actual text.
Entertaining clips replay bits of business from his sold-out one-man show at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, circa 1986, and a USO Christmas tour with Lewis Black in the Middle East; and banter between Williams and his pals Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg during their Comic Relief events. Williams’ serious award-worthy performances in such films as Dead Poet’s Society, Good Will Hunting, Awakenings and the unsettling One Hour Photo are also referenced in abundance here.
Robin Williams may have seemed a good fit with Elmo and Koko, but he was no Fred Rogers. We are reminded throughout the film that Williams’ off-the-cuff riffs and talk show banter often crossed into sexually explicit terrain. A clip features Williams’ raunchy “hands-on” improv during a fundraising gig that even seemed to make his co-stars, Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, uncomfortable. Be forewarned! This overlong bit may be off-putting to some viewers.
Robin Williams’ personal reflections culled from years of past interviews thread throughout and shed some light on his parents, career highs and lows, insecurities and addictions. But, off the grid, Robin Williams was apparently compelled to keep his most painful secret to himself: his formerly hard-wired mind and body were short-circuiting. He suffered from Lewy Body Dementia, not Parkinson’s Disease as originally misdiagnosed and reported. In 2014, he shocked his family, closest friends and fans by taking his own life.
A tad too long, the film could use some judicious cuts, especially the hackneyed period music that signals Robin Williams’ transitions through the decades… from his privileged, private schooled adolescence during the 1950s and ’60s to his 1970s San Francisco hippie/street performer phase. There is also more to learn about Williams’ childhood and unconventional family dynamics that laid the groundwork for his extraordinary talent, excessive need to please and horrific untimely demise.
If you long for some laughs (and who doesn’t in Trumpsville, USA?), Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind will do the trick. It’s an entertaining picnic in the park that reminds us how much we relished and continue to miss the singular talents of this comic genius. You can catch the film’s debut tonight, Monday, July 16, 2018, on HBO, from 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the days and weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate streaming platforms.) –Judith Trojan