Getting Technical: Why do funny when you could be intense?

Or, Robin Williams plays a most dangerous game.
Robin Williams will likely never again be a critic's favorite, and here's why: they've never really forgiven him for Patch Adams. It's true. You can actually see critic's opinion of Williams tail off since Adams was released in 1998, though in some cases it wasn't that high to begin with. But Adams is the real dividing line. And as a result, he rarely gets a Free Film. Why? Because it was his Free Film.
Let's review the critical commentary on William's work since 1998. Pay attention to its gradual pattern:

  • Patch Adams: The movie is so generally disdained by critics that it received a 25% rating at (which lumps all movie reviews together in one place, and calculates the positive versus the negative. Anything over 60% is considered good), and they could only find a few good reviews to put up there. Of the first two, one is from Compuserve, and the other is in Spanish. Not a good sign. But Williams is rarely blamed for it. Instead, they blame whoever else is available (especially director Tom Shadyac, which is why he never gets credit for the success of Bruce Almighty). Most reviews read like this: "Instead of drama, Patch Adams gives us mere iconography, and wastes Williams's iconoclastic dedicated doc." Williams is mostly still on good terms.
  • Jakob the Liar: A 28% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and even less happy reviews. However, the tone of these have changed. While one had to hunt for bad reviews of Williams before, this time they were much easier to find: "Williams' self-conscious and rather bland performance never comes close to bringing his character to life." And things continue to decend:
  • Bicentennial Man: Slightly better reviews and a 38% rating, but times get tougher for Williams. "Robin Williams is a talented man in danger of becoming a habitual hack," notes one of the reviews. Most of the other reviewers seem to think he's already there.
  • One Hour Photo: This one is key. Pay attention. An 81% rating, and general love from all the critics. But listen to the tone of the reviews. Nothing is mentioned without reference to another Williams movie. "Robin Williams has thankfully ditched the saccharine sentimentality of Bicentennial Man in favour of an altogether darker side," notes one. That's not a glowing expression of approval. The pattern's starting to emerge, but we'll need some more sources.
  • Death to Smoochy: Once again, a low opinion of the movie from critics: a 39% rating. But Williams is spared, because . But even while spared, there's a snarky factor to it: "It is so refreshing to see Robin Williams turn 180 degrees from the string of insultingly innocuous and sappy fiascoes he's been making for the last several years," notes a reviewer. So even when they like Williams in a particular film, they don't like him in general. But he's been playing their game for a couple years now, doing edgier, more serious fare. So if he makes a good film, they might welcome him in with open arms. Right?
  • Insomnia: 91% rating. Bingo. Reviews for Williams go something like this: "Standing toe-to-toe with Pacino, Williams reminds us of the humanity that he has brought to his finest roles in films like The Fisher King or Good Will Hunting." What's that? No mention of Bicentennial Man? So it seems Williams has finally been welcomed back in with open arms. As long as he keeps on this trail, they'll stick by him. But the pattern becomes clearer at this point, because of course he doesn't.
  • Robots: Williams didn't do too much for a couple years, and then reappeared with Robots, which garnered a solid 62% rating for it's excellent visual appeal, and pretty much nothing else. Hidden in these reviews are little hints and jabs at Williams, a signal that he should be careful: " Mr. Williams provokes a few chortles... but with Mr. Williams, less is so often more." This is not a problem yet. But this is a warning flag. So logically, if his next film is more serious and intense, he'll be forgiven. But if he goes the the other way...
  • RV: 22% rating on what is an arguably fun but definitely stupid family comedy. And Williams is burned at the stake. "Williams' appearance in this film is the biggest casting faux pas since Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell, Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face and Kevin Costner in almost anything he does," reads one review. Williams is back in the doghouse, and the critics, twice burned, hit him a little harder. Probably not what Williams was hoping for.
So, here's the pattern - Williams makes a movie that the critics despise. This is a strike against him. But then he doesn't learn his lesson. The first movie's successful, and then he does another movie like it, and another movie like that again. The critics are enflamed, each time ridiculing him harder and harder for having the audacity to make family-friendly cheesy comedy-dramas. Why won't he learn?

But he comes around. He switches gears again, goes back to the sort of movies that critics really love, and they gradually welcome him back into the fold. Because he's playing on their turf again. But when he switches again - well... it doesn't take much for them to turn on him.

Now, to make this example a little clearer, let me show you the other pattern working around through these films: their box-office numbers.

Patch Adams: $135 million (budget: $90 million)
Jakob the Liar: $5 million ($45 million)
Bicentennial Man: $58 million ($100 million)
One Hour Photo: $31 million ($12 million)
Death to Smoochy: $8 million ($50 million)
Insomnia: $67 million ($46 million)
Robots: $128 million ($75 million)
RV: 71 million ($50 million)
5 of those 8 films made money, which is not a bad average in Hollywood: Patch Adams, One Hour Photo, Insomnia, Robots, and RV. Of those, lets take out the three movies out that the critics actually liked - people going to see movies that critics liked doesn't faze them, they naturally assume that if they say a movie is good, people will go see it. So solid returns on a film with solid reviews is unsurprising to them - it's just as they thought it should be.

But when a movie that a reviewer has lambasted ends up making money, it ends up causing a stir. A critic takes it personally when a movie he or she has considered unworthy ends up winning over a large portion of the American viewing public. Clearly, the public needs to be taught a lesson or two.

Bring in Patch Adams and RV. The trouble with those films is not that critics hated them. It's that they made money even though critics hated them. That's a pretty cardinal rule for getting in on their bad side. And so their bitterness for this makes them dig deeper into Williams in Jakob the Liar and Bicentennial Man than they normally would've. Which bodes not well for Williams.

Next year Williams will voice a penguin in Happy Feet, try on being a Jon Stewart-type on Man of the Year, and play Teddy Roosevelt in Night at the Museum. And he has no idea how much trouble he's in.

Here's what the critics will say: On Happy Feet, they'll talk about how Williams hyperactivity makes them long for the solemness of March of the Penguins. When Man of the Year comes out, they'll talk about his less-than-slick comic stylings make them long for the slyness of Stewart and Colbert. And they'll snicker that his pure gonzo manic energy drains all enjoyment from Night at the Museum. They'll call him "tiresome," "aggravating," maybe even "washed-up" if they're feeling particularly vicious.

I guess that'll teach him. The lesson: never make something the whole family can enjoy.