Good Morning, Vietnam

March 26, 2013

goodmorningvietnamThe hero of Good Morning, Vietnam, Armed Forces Radio disc jockey Adrian Cronauer, first sets down in the bustling metropolis of Saigon in 1965. He takes one look around the hot, dusty city and exclaims, “I feel like a fox in a chicken coop!”

The Vietnam “police action” is just about to escalate, and Cronauer is just about to fire the morale of the American troops, and exasperate his military superiors, with his manic on-the-air patter and his scorching musical selections. Mantovani and Lawrence Welk are out; James Brown is very, very in.

So Cronauer truly is a fox in a chicken coop. But that analogy also applies to the actor who plays Cronauer, Robin Williams. Williams, of course, is the hyperactive human comedy synthesizer, a guy who can take any combination of unrelated ideas and build a 15-minute routine around them.

Playing this free-form disc jockey gives Williams the long leash he has always craved in movies. And director Barry Levinson, who has encouraged spirited improvisation in his other films (especially Diner and Tin Men), allows Williams the showcase.

William’s ozone-level raps range from the ominous visual comparison of Ho Chi Minh and Colonel Sanders (“The same person? You be the judge!”) to an ear-splitting impression of Ethel Merman jamming Soviet radar, which might segue into a variation on a Roger Miller song: “Da Nang me, Da Nang me, they oughta take a rope and hang me….”

The on-air routines are brilliant, and often to the thematic point. But at some stage, Good Morning, Vietnam has to build a movie to support this material. Naturally enough, Levinson and screenwriter Mitch Markowitz (who based the script very loosely on the real Cronauer’s experiences) play off the comedy of the radio show with the country’s increasing sense of chaos and despair.

Cronauer’s friendships with a beautiful Vietnamese woman (Chintara Sukapatana) and her brother (Tung Thanh Tran) grow shaky as the city begins to rumble. After he sees a terrorist bomb destroy a popular hangout for soldiers, Cronauer’s efforts to get the story on the air are squelched by Army brass, who prefer to keep the news positive.

Back at the radio station, the ensemble work is excellent—Williams isn’t the whole show—with deft performances by Forest Whitaker, Richard Portnow, and Richard Edson. And Levinson shrewdly uses two humorless officers (Bruno Kirby and J.T. Walsh) as unbendable foils for Cronauer’s wildness.

While much of the movie, comedic and otherwise, is affecting, the center somehow keeps slipping away. The film is really a collection of sketches, without a powerful unifying idea; Cronauer’s habit of getting into skirmishes isn’t a strong enough narrative device to do justice to the subject matter. Good Morning, Vietnam is never as penetrating as it clearly intends to be.

First published in the Herald, December 1987

Even at the time, people were talking about how the movies had finally found a role that tapped the peculiar talent of Robin Williams; the curious thing is, how infrequently the movies found similar sorts of things in which he could really cut loose. Despite his unfettered presence, the film is not really very good.


The Best of Times

July 29, 2011

Ever since 9:22 p.m., November 15, 1972, there has been an overriding reality in the life of an otherwise ordinary man from the small town of Taft, California. It was at that very moment, 13 years ago, that Jack (Robin Williams) dropped a last-second pass that would have given the Taft Rockets their first-ever victory over the hated Bakersfield Tigers.

Instead, Jack muffed the catch, Bakersfield won the high school rivalry again, and Jack was doomed to a life as The Man Who Dropped the Ball.

This is the situation for the protagonist of The Best of Times, a spunky, endearing slice-of-life comedy. As the film begins, Jack is recounting a brief history of the town of Taft, which has never seemed to win at anything. In a way, he’s like the town itself—small, unassuming, bloody but not bowed.

Jack gets it into his head that he can remove the nagging memory of that dropped ball—extricate himself from “the bowels of hell,” as he puts it—by replaying the game; that is, gathering all the now-paunchy players from the two squads and going through it all again.

But he’ll need the help of the greatest high school quarterback in the history of Taft: Reno Hightower (Kurt Russell). Reno resists, but a terrorist attack by a man dressed in a tiger suit—everyone thinks it’s a Bakersfield bad buy, but it’s actually Jack, trying to whip up enthusiasm for the game—changes Reno’s mind, and the preparations for the battle begin.

These are amusing; but at least as important to the heart of the film are the marital tribulations of Jack and Reno. Jack’s wife (Holly Palance) has thrown him out of the house because of his insistence on the replayed game. And long-standing problems have driven Reno’s wife (Pamela Reed) to temporary residence at the Top Hat motel.

A sequence with the two couples coming together for a reconciliation dinner is the comic centerpiece. The wives swig wine from the bottle in anticipation, the husbands try to bolster themselves with a game plan (“Be bland, but strong—careful, but with a touch of reckless”).

The women have deliberately scheduled the dinner for a Monday night, with the attendant televised football game; the dinner is a test to see whether the boys can resist the temptation. If that that setup seems a bit familiar, the results are funny nevertheless.

It all builds up to a conclusion that is also familiar and predictable: Every person who watches this movie knows that the big rematch will come down to a single play in which Jack will either redeem himself or become the goat of all time.

The plot may strike some as formula—how many movies can we take with a big sporting event as the finale? And yet The Best of Times has a wonderful freshness; it combines humor and heartache in a beguiling combination—in scenes such as Reno’s off-key rendition of “Close to You” at his wife’s motel room door, or the touching entreaty Jack makes to his wife in the gymnasium restroom during a pregame sock-hop.

Director Roger Spottiswoode (Under Fire) has a keen sense of how people talk, and behave; and he’s well-served by his actors. Williams and Russell have nice chemistry, and Palance (currently appearing in the Seattle Rep’s The Real Thing) and Reed (The Right Stuff) are attractively unglamorous.

The Best of Times doesn’t break new ground, and it’s a decidedly self-effacing work. But it’s a tremendously agreeable movie, and very easy to enjoy.

First published in the Herald, January 29, 1986

Lovely movie. I didn’t mention its screenwriter, because like most people I didn’t know who Ron Shelton was; Bull Durham was still a couple of years in the future. But of course Shelton’s spirit is all over this film, in the best ways. As for the director, this seemed like the moment Spottiswoode was going to settle onto the A-list, which didn’t happen although he did get some high-profile jobs, including a Bond picture. He was married to Holly Palance (yes, daughter of Jack), who didn’t really stick with the movie thing. This film just radiates a good feel, and everybody’s doing top-line work; of course, it didn’t do anything at the box office.