On the release anniversary of one of my favorite Robin Williams films, I want to revisit that film and two other underappreciated films in his career. These films may have been missed by large portions of the viewing audience and so I commend them to your viewing.
Insomnia was a great film in the catalog of the director Christopher Nolan. It came out a bit too early in 2003 to receive Oscar buzz, apparently. That is a tragedy. It’s a great performance from Williams, which shows him as an antagonist, stretching himself beyond his family films and comedic roles. Al Pacino also gives an Oscar-worthy performance in that same film.
What Dreams May Come (1998) is an artful meditation on tragedy, loss, and eternal life. What comes through in this role is the pain that Williams must have felt at various points in his unique life. What it lacks in theological precision is more than made up for by its emotional intelligence, and by its supporting acting. Anything with Max von Sydow will at least be worth sitting through, and this film— I believe— is much more than that.
Hook (1991) is a re-imagination of the Peter Pan story. If the setup is a bit formulaic, the execution makes up for it. It deserved to do better at the box office, and Steven Spielberg’s disavowal of his own film is one of his stupider decisions as an adult. It’s a family film with a deep resonance for all audiences. It has a star-studded cast, which includes most notably Dustin Hoffman as Hook, and Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell. Moreover, Dame Maggie Smith never lets us down, and she adds a subtle gravitas as Wendy.
I think what all these films share is a wrestling with loss, disappointment, and outright tragedy. Hope is not something that we have as a bulwark against reality, but it is the energy of Providence, the fuel of endurance in the midst of sorrow and suffering. Robin Williams did not so much help us escape from our lives in these films, but to look squarely at them in their difficulty, and to go forward with hope anyway. A couple other films rightly garnered him awards and critical praise, but these three are the ones that I remember most vividly.
Perhaps it could be said that those who busy themselves in the task of making others laugh often have trouble laughing themselves. Maybe in another way, tears are the fuel of joyous laughter, because sorrow is not the end of the story, and we find a certain glory in simply living. It is not entirely true that what does not kill us makes us stronger, but it can often be true.
There is a deep humanity in Williams, which comes through in every performance. Few performers can switch between drama, comedy, and family fare, without seeming out of place. Robin Williams did it seamlessly. Every example retains his personal empathy, with the exception of Insomnia, which nevertheless reminds us of it by way of its stark contrast.
There is a strong tendency toward nostalgia these days, and much of it is not earned. Robin Williams earned that retrospective goodwill, and we were aware of it before we needed it.
Maybe it is a bit superfluous to write an apology for an Oscar-winning actor, but then again, Robin Williams was supposed to be just a comedian. I myself have been a witness to criticism of his work as excessively sentimental, and lacking a focused center. I think rather that we have subsisted as a culture on too little empathy, and we are starved for it, when we realize that one of its main practitioners isn’t here to offer us more.
I commend these films to you, and you may want to grab some tissues. Yet what I appreciate most deeply about these three examples is that there is no cheap sympathy in any of it. It is human dignity that must be reckoned with, must be acknowledged. That dignity somehow must be articulated in words and pictures, and Robin Williams helps us to do that.
Jason Kettinger is Associate Editor of Open for Business. He writes on politics, sports, faith and more.