Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) & Liar Liar (1997)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in One-Man Show | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Some swearing and sexual references in both, and cross-dressing in one.

Very few family films have taken on the subject of divorce – for the simple reason that most are light-hearted comedies or action-packed fantasies – and even fewer have taken the subject and seen it through the eyes of a child (Parent Trap, Little Monsters, and E.T. come to mind). I’d like to say these two are different, and present characters that so many children nowadays can empathize with, but I can’t. Like many of the others before them (notably Kramer vs. Kramer and I am Sam), these two see a divorce through the father’s eyes. In both cases the divorce issue takes a seat in the back for most of the time, while its comedic leading men (Robin Williams and Jim Carrey) chew up the scenery and spit back comedic gold.

Williams plays an often-out-of-work voice-over actor with moral standards. To his kids (Mara Wilson, Lisa Jakub, and Matthew Lawrence) he’s superman, for the simple reason that he’s all about fun. To his wife (Sally Field), he’s nothing but problems. When they divorce, mom gets custody of the kids since he doesn’t have a stable job or living environment. When she looks to hire a housekeeper, however, he jumps at the opportunity to spend more time with them by transforming into an elderly Scottish woman named Mrs. Doubtfire (recalling Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie).DoubtLiar2

Carrey, meanwhile, plays a workaholic attorney with absolutely no ethics and a knack for lying. To his son Max (Justin Cooper), he’s superman, for the simple reason that’s he’s all about fun. After he misses Max’s birthday, however, the 5 year-old wishes his father couldn’t tell a lie for 24 hours. So Carrey needs to win an impossible case (involving Jennifer Tilly), prove his worth as a father, and persuade his ex-wife (Maura Tierney) not to move to Boston with their son – all in one day.

Directed by Chris Columbus from Anne Fine’s novel, Mrs. Doubtfire has its fair share of comedic scenes. There’s a montage of horrid applicants (from a band member asking if the kids “need a few light slams” to a foreigner saying simply “I am job”); there’s another montage as Williams’ brother (Harvey Fierstein) invents the nanny’s looks (from Gloria Swanson to the Matchmaker); and countless improvisational moments as Williams impersonates Gandhi, Porky Pig, Jack Nicholson, James Brown, the Marx Brothers, Sean Connery, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Barbra Streisand, and Elvis. If the rumors are true, and Williams will step into Doubtfire’s shoes once again for a sequel, we can only hope for more of the comedic genius and improvisational talents displayed here.

Liar Liar, one of three Carrey films headed by director Tom Shadyac (Ace Ventura and Bruce Almighty), as always hinges on Carrey’s knack for physical comedy and strange voices. I’m especially partial to Carrey’s “The pen is blue” battle, his grievances at the impound, getting pulled over, confessing hatred to his superiors at a board meeting, and his fight in a courtroom bathroom.

Critics bashed both films considerably DoubtLiar3(with a few good reviews on both sides), but box office receipts and crossovers to TV suggest audiences responded differently. Why? Well, the personalities and drawing power of the leading men certainly play into that, but it’s also because they picked up slack for their many plot-related failures by, quite simply, being entertaining.

The similarities between the two films – besides those already mentioned – are too frequent to ignore. Coincidentally both star Anne Haney in bit roles (as Mrs. Sellner and Greta). No big deal. Both Carrey’s and Williams’ characters avoid their mothers at all costs. Perhaps a coincidence. Toward the end of each of the movies the stars comically fire off a string of slang terms for sex. Hmmmm. But wait, the best is yet to come. Both films begin with their son’s birthday, and, even weirder, Carrey and Williams joke about getting them strippers. Perhaps the most obvious difference between the two is their endings, which are drastically dissimilar.

Most divorce movies present a “new love interest character.” But while they’re typically made out to be snakes, these two show them from another light. In Doubtfire, for instance, the mother’s new beau (Pierce Brosnan) is not presented as a villain, but a kind smooth-talker. Williams’ character seems shallow in his presence, as he verbally jests with him out of jealousy, not caring about his ex-wife’s happiness. Cary Elwes plays the replacement love interest in Liar Liar, and though he lacks personality (“Look out, here comes The Claw”), he far exceeds Carrey as a caring father figure. Once again Carrey mocks the character relentlessly and unleashes jokes at his expense. “He struck the child; did you see that?” he asks at one point. In another scene Elwes congratulates Carrey on Max’s birthday gift, “Hey, great gift dad!” to which Carrey sarcastically responds, “Thanks son.”

Though they’re entertaining movies, neither do a particularly good job of showing how the children react and cope with a divorce. Instead they show kids pining for their fathers, who are clearly poor role models but who make them laugh and love them dearly. As far as coping with the divorce, it’s quite simple. Both have the mother, against her initial gut reaction, reunite the kids with their father at the end. I’m glad, however, that Mrs. Doubtfire’s closing statement at least addresses some of the concerns those children have, as they are no doubt are going through the hardest thing they can imagine.

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