Friday, January 11, 2008

Steve Martin vs. Robin Williams: Showdown of failure


The other night Jesse and I discussed the strange fact that Robin Williams and Steve Martin, two of the most brilliant and successful comedians of our time, have made so many poor, unfunny films that just don’t do justice to their talent. It’s especially inexplicable since both are rich and powerful and presumably have been able to make any film they’ve wanted for at least 20 years now.

In my opinion Martin has done far better: The Jerk, L.A. Story, Parenthood — all masterpieces. And he’s done well with Roxanne, Little Shop of Horrors and a bunch more. But Sgt. Bilko? Father of the Bride Part II? Cheaper by the Dozen 2? The Pink Panther?!

Williams’s career, in contrast, is a disgrace. Mrs. Doubtfire, Cadillac Man, Toys, Jack, Death to Smoochy, Hook, Patch Adams, Jumanji, Flubber, and who can forget RV — it’s just incontheivable that a man this supremely talented has never made a great comedy film, and I don’t think his many carpe diem parts (Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, Good Will Hunting, Good Morning, Vietnam) make up for this deficiency; rather, they just point to an easy crutch.

An interesting note: they’ve never been in a film together.

Jesse took it upon himself to compile, in the way that only he can, the following year-by-year, film-by-film comparison of Martin and Williams. It’s pretty sad. My comments, where I have them, are in [bracketed itals].
We will start by pointing out the feature film debuts of both of them, The Jerk (1979) and Popeye (1980). Both excellent films, but the critics would have The Jerk as the winner. Nevertheless, I will say they started out even. Let the games begin! [For the record, I note that Jesse has an unusual and very personal bias toward Popeye, a massive flop that had serious consequences for Williams, Robert Altman (director) and Robert Evans (producer). Also, I think it’s awesome that Martin’s role in The Muppet Movie (1979) is “Insolent Waiter.”]

Steve: Pennies From Heaven. Excellent underrated musical dark comedy.
Robin: Nothing. Probably still smarting from Popeye.
Winner: Steve by default.

Steve: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. Excellent noir homage/parody.
Robin: The World According to Garp. Worthwhile adaptation of Irving novel.
Winner: Tie. Critics may raise Garp over Plaid, but I value Plaid over Garp.

Steve: The Man With Two Brains. Good dark comedy some value as excellent.
Robin: The Survivors. Haven’t seen this, but it has Walter Matthau.
Winner: Tough, but I say tie. Fans aren’t overly ecstatic about Brains, and I’ve heard good things about Survivors.

Steve: All of Me. Classic comedy that propelled Steve into stardom. [Not sure why you think that — Martin was already a major comedy star. Note “King Tut,” “Wild and Crazy Guys” etc. from SNL in the ’70s.] The Lonely Guy. Funny film that tried to recapture brilliance of The Jerk.
Robin: Moscow on the Hudson. Very touching movie about Russian defector.
Winner: Tough. Stellar year for both, but although critics may have favored Moscow slightly more than All, All has withstood the test of time better. I will say Steve here, but only by the fact that he turned in the above-average Lonely Guy as well. [Agreed.]

Steve: Nothing, probably due to having served up two films last year.
Robin: Nothing as well. Lazy perhaps.

Steve: Little Shop of Horrors. Small part in worthwhile adaptation. [A masterly cameo, I think. Martin is a vocal amateur, of course, but he nails the part.] ¡Three Amigos! Classic.
Robin: Club Paradise. Underrated film, low on laughs but high on charm. The Best Years of Our Lives. Bizarre “comedy” about a high school football reunion.
Winner: Steve, but he did not trounce Robin this year. [Nonsense. Little Shop of Horrors and Three Amigos? Come on, Steve by miles.]

Steve: Planes, Trains & Automobiles. Underrated classic. Roxanne. Overrated adaptation of Cyrano, but worthwhile nonetheless. [I think the reverse: Planes, Trains is overrated, Roxanne gets an A-.]
Robin: Good Morning, Vietnam. Overrated but still fairly good period comedy. Winner: Tie. Critics highly favored Vietnam, but also gave nods to Roxanne, and Planes has had the most durability. [Maybe so, but Vietnam was a massive hit. I’m inclined to agree on the tie, but that success is notable.]

Steve: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Classic.
Robin: Nothing.
Winner: Steve by default.

Steve: Parenthood. A good film when all comes down to it. [It’s a great one, especially for Martin, from “you’re an amalgam” on down.]
Robin: Dead Poets Society. Overrated, yes, but still a classic. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. A small part in a classic.
Winner: Robin. He got Oscar nods and people went gaga for Dead Poets, plus his turn in Munchausen allied him with another great film. [Dead Poets was a big one, but I call it a draw.]

Recap of the decade: Not counting default years, Steve leads by 2, which isn’t much. With defaults, 4. [My count would be Steve by 1, or by 3 counting defaults.]

Steve: My Blue Heaven. Not entirely unfunny, but not very strong either.
Robin: Awakenings. Serious drama via Oliver Sacks. Actually not that bad. Cadillac Man. Not entirely unfunny, but not very strong either.
Winner: Robin. While Cadillac and Heaven are very close in quality, Awakenings gives Robin a little more actor credit.

Steve: Father of the Bride. Not-bad retread of Parenthood style. [It’s well liked by girls and their moms, but I’d say it’s weak.] Grand Canyon. Haven’t seen this, but guessing not entirely bad. Sort of a sequel to The Big Chill. L.A. Story. Excellent later film that is a little of a mixed bag. [Strongly disagree. It’s a 10 out of 10 in my book, and an inspiration.]
Robin: Hook. Overly maligned. Actually not that bad. The Fisher King. Excellent Gilliam film. Dead Again. Haven’t seen this one, but guessing not entirely bad. [It’s not bad, but I don’t remember Williams’s part; he’s not one of the leads.]
Winner: Tough. Grand Canyon cancels out Dead Again. Bride cancels out Hook (although Hook is slightly better). Fisher King is slightly better than L.A. Story, so Robin by a hair. [I’d call it a draw. Fisher King may have been an important role for Williams, but I prefer L.A. Story, as noted. Also, Fisher King is a lesser version of the Dead Poets/Good Will Hunting role that was starting to become cookie cutter for Williams at this point.]

Steve: HouseSitter. Not very good but not terrible comedy with Goldie Hawn. Leap of Faith. Incredibly boring.
Robin: Aladdin. Good Disney flick, pretty funny. Shakes the Clown. Dark comedy that is not entirely bad, but not very good. Toys. Huge flop. Almost unwatchable.
Winner: If it hadn’t been for Toys, Robin would have trounced Steve this year. With the inclusion of Toys, I’d say tie.

Steve: Nothing.
Robin: Being Human. Strange multi-role drama. Mrs. Doubtfire. Highly successful and not that bad actually.
Winner: Robin by default. [I would call Doubtfire worthless, which means this is a draw.]

Steve: Mixed Nuts. Completely forgettable, but not godawful. Simple Twist of Fate. Mediocre remake of Silas Marner, à la Roxanne.
Robin: Nothing.
Winner: Steve by default, barely.

Steve: Father of the Bride Part II. Completely worthless sequel; not soul-crushing, just awful.
Robin: Jumanji. A nicely spirited family romp. Nine Months. Small part in decent family comedy. To Wong Foo. Worthless remake, but not soul-crushing. [Is it really a remake?]
Winner: Robin.

Steve: Sgt. Bilko. Stupid.
Robin: Jack. Pretty dumb. The Birdcage. Decent remake, but not great. Hamlet. Small part in pretty good adaptation. [I was curious so I looked it up: he plays Osric, a courtier. Very minor character.]
Winner: Robin.

Steve: The Spanish Prisoner. Pretty interesting drama, a good turn for Steve.
Robin: Good Will Hunting. Star turn for Robin, overrated but still pretty good. [ADDENDA: Flubber, a black hole of filmic suckiness, perhaps the reason it was missed the first time around. Deconstructing Harry, mediocre Woody Allen flick, don’t remember Williams’s role. Father’s Day, invisible “dad” comedy with Billy Crystal.]
Winner: Robin. [A real sourpuss would say Flubber cancels out Good Will Hunting. I don’t think so, but it’s certainly debatable: a decade later, Flubber still stands as nearly as great an embarrassment as Hunting was a success.]

Steve: Nothing.
Robin: Patch Adams. Pretty dead attempt at fusing Awakenings with Good Morning, Vietnam. What Dreams May Come. Incredibly overdone, but not soul-crushing bad.
Winner: No one. Neither of Robin’s films warrant a win by default.

Steve: Bowfinger. Startling return to form of sorts. Good film, if not great. The Out of Towners. Worthless remake.
Robin: Bicentennial Man. Horrid. Jakob the Liar. Worthless remake, but not without some merit at least. [How can it be worthless and yet not without merit? Also, I dont believe its a remake.]
Winner: Steve.

Recap of the decade: Robin by 4, not counting defaults. With defaults 5. Which means, with the previous decade, Robin is ahead by 2. [I put Williams ahead by 3 this decade. Total so far, Williams by 1, or Martin by 1 if counting defaults.]

Steve: Joe Gould’s Secret. Under-the-radar small bit in what I hear is a good film.
Robin: Nothing.
Winner: No one. Steve’s small part is not a win by default.

Steve: Novocaine. From what I hear, mind-bogglingly pointless.
Robin: AI. Bit voice-over part in this monumental embarrassment.
Winner: No one. Robin has higher profile, but no one scores.

Steve: Nothing.
Robin: Death to Smoochy. Mixed reviews on this one. Insomnia. A very well done remake and great turn by Robin. [Really?] 24 Hour Photo. OK, not bad.
Winner: Robin by default.

Steve: Cheaper by the Dozen. Attempt to recapture Parenthood sales. Not good. Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Semi-acceptable family film. Bringing Down the House. Why?
Robin: Nothing.
Winner: It would be hard to say Steve by default here. So I’m not going to.

Steve: Nothing.
Robin: House of D. Barely seen drama that has been reviewed so-so. [Notable in that it was written and directed by David Duchovny.] The Final Cut. Another serious turn for Robin; hear it is so-so.
Winner: While Robin should maybe win by default, the fact that I’ve seen none of these is indication how nonexistent Robin was this year. So no one.

Steve: Cheaper By the Dozen 2. Why? Shopgirl. Although it got mixed reviews, it at least garnered better attention.
Robin: Robots. Big cartoon. OK. The Big White. Haven’t seen. Sounds so-so.
Winner: Steve. Only by a hair, due to Robots. And really it should be a tie. I mean, Cheaper By the Dozen 2 is a stinker. [I haven’t seen Shopgirl, but Martin deserves some credit since it’s based on a short book he wrote.]

Steve: The Pink Panther. Ouch.
Robin: Happy Feet. Good/great animated film. Man of the Year. This might be applied to Robin for how many films he’s in this year, but no. Night at the Museum. OK children’s film. RV. Horrid. The Night Listener. Another film like The Final Cut, 24 Hour Photo, etc., etc.
Winner: Robin. [RV cancels all. Another draw by mutual suck.]

Steve: Nothing.
Robin: License to Wed. Soul-crushing. August Rush. Horrid.
Winner: Steve by default. Better to do nothing then these films.

So far this decade, Robin by 1, but with defaults they are tied. [Actually, by your count they’re tied either way.] Add to it the other decades and Robin is ahead by 3. [By my own reckoning Martin is up 1 in the ’00s. All-time career totals ... they’re equal if default years are not counted, and Martin is up 2 if they are.]


Anonymous said...

I would like to add that Williams, a long time resident of my own San Francisco, is known to give out his DVDs is lieu of candy on Halloween. For my next trip I will evaulate the relative worth of a free "RV" DVD versus various Halloween candy i.e. which is worth more? Necco Wafers or RV? A single Hershey's Kiss [perhaps poisoned] or RV?

Anonymous said...

Wow. Steve Martin vs. Robin Williams. How do you even quantify that? I think we can all agree that their careers have followed an eerily similar trajectory— two bright stars that have sadly grown dim these last ten years.

However, I'm not certain whether I can get behind the year-by-year showdown model that Jesse has so thoughtfully used. It's a bit like using a 0.0 – 4.0 "grade point" model instead of the fairer 0 – 100% "test score" model, where even if you get half of the answers right, you still get no points. And reducing multiple movies into one annual performance doesn't allow for extra credit.

Instead, I think it's best to render judgment based on a very broad look at their careers:

Steve Martin began stand-up comedy in or around 1967, and brought fresh, subversive material to the stage (including generation-defining appearances on "SNL") for twelve years until his film breakthrough, "The Jerk. For the next twelve years, he carried a number of warmly received comedies ending with "L.A. Story" (my favorite comedy, bar none) in 1991. That same year, "Father of the Bride" began a marathon of mediocrity with pitifully few exceptions (e.g., "Bowfinger," "Shopgirl," both self-written).

Robin Williams began stand-up sometime after his 1973 enrollment in Julliard, and these routines STILL HOLD UP 30 years later (see if you can find his LP, "Reality...What a Concept!" There's about 24 hours of comedy packed in to 45 minutes. I think the cocaine may have helped a bit.). By 1978 he was fixture on prime-time television ("Mork & Mindy"). Altman's "Popeye" was simultaneously his big screen debut and a near fatal misstep. Luckily, like Martin, he bounced back with twelve years of (mostly) solid hits ending with his voiceover in "Aladdin" (1992). Not one month later, he kicked off a spectacular downward spiral with "Toys." Even the Academy seemed to give his 1998 Oscar more for lifetime achievement than for merit. By and large, Williams' highs have been higher than Martin's, but his crassly calculated 90's roles have been much, much lower.

Two other factors to consider:

#1: Steve Martin can write. And well, at that. "The Jerk," "Dead Men," "Two Brains," "Three Amigos," "Roxanne," "L.A. Story," "Bowfinger," "Shop Girl"? All him. And this stage play "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" wasn't half bad either. By contrast, I'm not even sure if Robin Williams has written a shopping list in his life.

#2: Robin Williams can improvise. Taking him off script is like unleashing a wild animal. On the premiere of Letterman's "Late Show" in 1993, he was literally hanging off the rafters in the studio. Even Dave was stunned. And this energy has never waned. He's still totally nuts in front of a live audience. On the other hand, in interviews Steve Martin acts like a character right out of an Ingmar Bergman movie.

Put it all together and what do you have? A draw. Plain and simple.

rudylandsam said...

Grand Canyon...Jeremy Sisto's debut. Thank you Grand Canyon!

B. said...

The conceit here is that there's no real point in having them compete, since of course it's a "draw" -- they both lose. The brilliance of the year-by-year, "This Is Your Life" treatment is to show HOW they failed. Or at least illustrate it in detail.

I'm not sure I do understand why, actually. Is there something to chart in their personal lives alongside these career markers? Was there some reason they had to take the "Flubber" and "Cheaper by the Dozen" roles? Do they not have the guts to take real chances the way Bill Murray has? Or do they fear fading into distinguished obscurity like Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd?

Anonymous said...

I am attending an interview and Q&A with Steve Martin next week. Perhaps I will muster up the balls to ask him what has governed his choice in scripts these last 15 years.

B. said...

I will give you $100 if you ask him why he keeps making so many unworthy films. Tape his response.

Anonymous said...

I'm a couple years late to the party I guess, but I'd like to point out that they did both star in an off-Broadway performance of Waiting for Godot, and no one thought to film it...

Anonymous said...

You should see HOUSE OF D.
It´s brilliant.
David Duchovny made an excellent film, original, funny and sad at the same time. No manipulative.