For years and years, I had a boss that I really didn't like very much. Al was funny and capable, but not a good person. Married with two small boys, he would spend every weekend on overnight scuba diving trips or camping at a minor league NASCAR track. Working pit for his friend. He said these trips were reward for being the bread-winner. His wife sat around all week, so she didn't need a break on the weekend like he did. When the inevitable divorce came, Al started buying gold bars. He embezzled as much money from the relationship as he could get away with. His wife deserved nothing. He cringed at the thought of her taking the money that he earned. Al's favorite movie was "Good Morning Vietnam".
At first blush, Good Morning Vietnam seems like the sort of movie that cheese-balls like Al prefer. The sort of movie that they can quote over beers with their friends. Like Top Gun or Stripes. And it is. GMV is loaded with quotable lines. The sort of jokes that immature men can tell one another when they cannot think of anything witty to say. I have seen GMV a dozen times. I won a copy of the VHS tape on a radio call-in contest in the late eighties, so I have owned it for twenty-five years. Comedy and action, a movie to watch when restless, late at night.
There is a depth and warmth to the movie that transcends the cheese. It paints a human portrait of residents of Vietnam that has nothing to do with war. It shows their life of poverty and striving. It shows humor and hardship. The movie is a roller-coaster. From comedic to heartfelt to tragic and back. And the reason it works is Robin Williams. His character makes each section of the movie believable. His humor is undeniable, but it is the acting that makes him special. His facial expressions tell most of the story. His wonder, his joy, his pain.
It would probably be hard to find an American who couldn't think of a Robin Williams movie she or he loves. The body of work is vast and varied. He was prolific (three movies in post-production right now) and unpredictable. I looked through his filmography on www.imdb.com and I was shocked to see the number of films he starred in. Most of them were unfamiliar to me. But many of them are in my list of favorites. Funny movies that made me think. Thinking movies that made me laugh. Movies about broken people trying to find their way in life. The Fisher King, Dead Poet's Society. Even RV.
My favorite in the list is Good Will Hunting. When it came out, I watched it twice. A movie about a troubled young man wrestling with his demons. But when I watched it a few months ago, the first time in a decade or more, I found it to be about an aging therapist. A man trying to get his life back on track following loss. Clearly, my perception has changed because of my age and my maturity, but there is something else there. Something that is consistent in every Robin Williams movie that appeals to me. While he is completely overbearing on screen, the star of the show, he somehow lets the other actors leave a memorable impression. My most vivid memories of GMV, et al, are not of Williams telling jokes, but of another character's crisis. Every Robin Williams movie I can think of, that I love - where his character grows, adapts, improves - is also about someone else.
I'm sure that my old boss, Al, is throwing out Good Morning Vietnam quotes these days. Me, I'm thinking of Robin's trademark sad-smile. His warm but resigned eyes. The evidence that there is always a bit of pain beneath joy.