Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Ghost in the Case: Renaissance Man

"This story shall the good man teach his son.  And Crispin Crispian shall never go by.  From this day to the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remembered.  We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.  For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.  Be he never so vile.  This day shall gentle his condition and gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think themselves a-cursed they were not here and hold their man-hoods cheap while any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin's Day"

Ghost here!  Thanks for joining me today for yet another
Can critics sometimes judge a film too harshly or unfairly based on existing works?  You don't need to answer that because it's a resounding yes.  I know that I have judged something unfairly and prematurely using the same criteria (something that was rectified with the Dishonored Review). But when do we need to make these comparisons and when do we need to stop comparing one thing to another and only look at what is presented before us?  That one is a little more difficult to pinpoint.  Even as a child I found it very difficult to talk pleasantly about my own drawings or the drawings of others when I compared it to my friend Matthew who has always been an excellent artist.  Everything paled in comparison to his work but did that mean our work wasn't without merit?  Absolutely not.

Many films stand in the same spot as my childhood artwork.  They may be quite good and suitable films but when someone compares them to something like Citizen Kane it's not quite as good anymore.  That comparison wasteland is where we find today's film.  Renaissance Man is a 1994 film starring one of my favorite actors, Danny DeVito.  At the time of its release it was slammed by critics for having questionable logic, being too similar to other films, being created by producers who in their opinion made much better films than this, and for the fact that it's not actually a straight-up comedy...it's a drama/comedy which some people can find difficult to pinpoint.  Are these criticisms on target or have they been too busy looking at other projects to see a good film underneath?  Let's take a look.

The Story
Bill Rago (DeVito) is a divorced advertising executive from Detroit who just can't catch a break.  After failing miserably at an over-the-phone ad pitch he is fired.  To make matters worse he can't afford his furniture payments and has a rocky relationship with his daughter.  Bill ends up going to the Detroit Unemployment Office.  After a short time the Unemployment Office finds him a job teaching at a nearby United States Army training base, Fort McClane.  Despite never teaching in his life, Bill has a Master's Degree and qualifies for the job.

Upon arriving at Fort McClane, Bill learns that his job is to help a small group of recruits gain some better comprehension skills in an experimental program to help keep them in the service rather than throwing them back out into the street.   Each of these recruits has their own back-story of ignorance, neglect, abuse and all sorts of home problems which landed them in this position.  Almost everyone involved is not thrilled.  Bill is frustrated that his life has lead him to be woken up at 4 am by early morning training sessions when he should be having a desk job.  The recruits are frustrated because everyone else in basic training singles them out and they have a civilian as a teacher.  The recruit's drill sergeant isn't happy because he believes Bill is wasting his time.

As Bill attempts to find a way to teach generalized comprehension he finds that the class is incredibly interested in the book that Bill has been reading, Hamlet.  Since he has to teach them something and he might as well teach them something that he loves, Bill decides to teach the recruits everything he can about Hamlet and the verbal and mental skills it takes to fully understand and appreciate Shakespeare.  He spends some time teaching his students and getting to know them but still not fully committing to his new career.  After a dangerous altercation with the drill sergeant and a meeting with the resident General, Bill tries one last stab at an advertising job interview.

Going to this interview however makes him late to his class which results in the recruits leaving him because they don't feel like he thinks they are worth it.  Tracking them down, Bill ends up climbing the Victory Tower, Fort McClane's obstacle course, trying to talk some sense into the recruits and gains their respect in the process.  As classes continue he begins to see an alarming amount of intellect from one of his students, Roosevelt Hobbs and attempts to get the army to look at Hobbs more closely as he is smart enough to be an officer.  Unfortunately they uncover that Hobbs was a drug dealer trying to hide out in the military and is arrested.

Due to these events, Bill realizes that he does truly care about these young people and gives up his ambitions to return to advertising, sinking his money into his daughter's future career as an astronomer.  Bill then decides to track down the records of one of his student's father who died in Vietnam out of the hopes that the army will finally recognize his father's heroism.  As Bil tries to take the records to the drill sergeant, the drill sergeant quizzes Bill's students on Shakespeare to which one of them recites a piece from Henry V about soldiers proving to the drill sergeant that Bill's work was indeed helpful.  The film ends as each of his students passes basic training (Davis Jr receiving his father's Silver Star) and Bill signs up to teach a new group of recruits. 

 What's Good About It?

First off the characters and actors in this are quite good.  While, yes, I will admit that most of the secondary characters aren't given much to do and could have just been anyone and the main characters aren't anything super fresh and original they still really work and the actors make the part their own.  Bill Rago is your standard sarcastic down on his luck guy you see in many films but DeVito gives a performance that is totally his own and I couldn't really see this part played by anyone else because there's just so much of DeVito's normal charm, awkwardness, and humor in it.  By the same token Gregory Hines' character of the hot headed drill sergeant is nothing new either but he hits that performance out of the park.  Yes he can be hard, yes he can be hateful but you really feel his passion for helping these men and women out to truly be all that they can be.

The students/recruits are also likeable and well thought out.  None of them are overly annoying or superfluous.  While each of them have a sort of simplified overarching characteristic it's never too simplistic like children's shows can sometimes make people.  They each have a back-story full of tragedy or lack of care and each of them succeed despite this in one way or another.  They work well off each other and it feels good to go with them on this journey till they enter full military service.  Plus you get to see performances from a young Stacy Dash and Mark Wahlberg.

This film is a comedy/drama and when the comedy aspect is pushed to the foreground it really succeeds.  The scene of DeVito in the Unemployment Office and the scene where DeVito is woken up abruptly at 4 AM to "the sound of hell" are two of the funniest parts of this movie and bring about DeVito's natural comedic timing and delivery.  However quite possibly the funniest scene in the whole film is when DeVito is climbing the victory tower fussing at his students.  Seeing such a short man climbing up these ropes and ladders while fussing and shouting then being scared to death at having to rappel down the tower wall is comedic gold and never ceases to amuse me. 

What's Bad About It?

As I previously stated, this is a comedy/drama and a lot of people just find that an odd combination.  It's very difficult to balance out the emotions and weight of the drama with the shenanigans and hilarity of the comedy.  You don't want to ruin the jokes with a slam to the gut but you also don't want to pull a Bambi's Mom and have something heavy followed by happy birds.  The balance is mostly there but I would have loved to see at least one or two more scenes where the comedy was pushed to the forefront.  Perhaps get rid of the Hamlet rap scene or something.  Just a little more comedy would have been appreciated especially as this was originally targeted as a straight comedy then was re-categorized after release due to the lack of comedic scenes.
There's a bit of a questionable logic issue going on in this film.  I'll be honest, when I watched this as I was younger I didn't really notice it that much because it was just something unconventional being taught that helped people out.  But as I got older I started really questioning how learning Hamlet was going to help kids with little education become better at comprehending what they're being told to do in military training.  How are the works of Shakespeare going to prepare these people for combat?  It's something that I question more now that I'm an adult.  The argument could be made that you have to exercise your mind some to fully understand the complex structure and poetic language that Shakespeare wrote thus allowing them to think more on their feet during training but that's a pretty thin argument.  If you can't just accept that Hamlet is teaching these guys to be smarter then you may have a tough time with this film.

Unwarranted Negativity

I feel as though there is a fair amount of unwarranted negativity being given by the critics at the time of this movie's release.  It was slammed for not making much money at the box office.  While that is a problem it was having to compete with the likes of Speed, The Flintstones, and THE LION KING.  So of course the movie about soldiers learning Shakespeare isn't going to do well when stacked against those odds.  They should have waited for a better release date window and the film might have done better.

It's also been slammed because of the director of the film, Penny Marshall.  People kept making comments about how Big and A League of Their Own were so great and this one just falls flat in comparison.  I honestly disagree.  For my money, this film is just as enjoyable as A League of Their Own and Big it's just a different kind of film.  Even if it's not as good as those two it's still a good film and sometimes critics need to not focus SO much on other works done by the people in charge which are considered absolute gems and just focus on the offering at hand because what we were given is something pretty good.

Final Thoughts

As I've said, for my money this is a good film.  It's honestly one of my favorites.  Yes it has an identity crisis and yes there may be some questionable logic but if you just sit back and take in what you're seeing you may agree that this is something special.  It's not one of the greatest films out there and I dare say it may not even make it in my top 20 but it's still a darn good film that I think everyone should check out at least once.

Renaissance Man is rated PG-13 and is available on DVD from Touchstone Pictures

This is Ghost, fading into the darkness
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