by Pauline Kael
The only fresh element in American movies of the eighties may be what Steve Martin, Bill Murray, Bette Midler, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, and other comedians have brought to them. They’ve stirred things up even when they’ve been in squalid excuses for movies (such as Martin’s current hit Planes, Trains and Automobiles). The one with the best record is Robin Williams, who made his debut in Popeye, in 1980, and then appeared in The World According to Garp, The Survivors, Moscow on the Hudson, The Best of Times, and Club Paradise. He hasn’t had many hits, but his films weren’t smarmy—not until now. His new picture, Good Morning, Vietnam, makes him out to be a vulnerable, compassionate, respectful-of-the Vietnamese, wonderful guy, and the director, Barry Levinson, has a numbing sense of rhythm: he labors the jokes. Williams plays Adrian Cronauer, a disk jockey on Armed Forces Radio who’s brought to Saigon in 1965 to improve the morale of the troops during the escalation of the war. Adrian’s rock records and line of patter blast everybody awake. The role makes it possible for Williams to do his own manic riffs, but they’re chopped short—they don’t get a chance to build. And we might as well be listening to a laughtrack: we’re told Adrian is funny, instead of being allowed to discover it. The film keeps cutting to soldiers breaking up over his spiel before it’s out of his mouth, and the men in the field become passionately enthusiastic about him within two minutes. Throughout the movie, we’re alerted to how terrific and how irreverent he is, even though he isn’t so terrific and his irreverence sounds tinny. Worse, Levinson goes for heart: we’re shown the serious side of what’s going on in Vietnam, and that’s when you may remember that this is in fact a Disney picture. When Williams is being concerned and thoughtful and arguing with a terrorist, he looks all scrunched up with discomfort, as if he were biting into a lemon, as indeed he is. There is an Adrian Cronauer, and the movie is very loosely based on his exploits, but the way the story line (from the script by Mitch Markowitz) has been directed, it’s a clumsier version of the plots of fifties musicals. The priggish officers (played by Bruno Kirby and J. T. Walsh) who give Adrian a bad time, ordering him not to tell his listeners anything about what’s really happening in the war, are such dumb meanies you can’t even laugh.
Williams’ acting is amiable enough. In a subplot, Adrian takes over the teaching of a class in English for adult Vietnamese and turns it into a class in American slang. This device doesn’t seem promising, but it provides Williams with some pleasantly relaxed scenes. When he asks the students questions, the straight-faced, skewed answers given by an elderly Vietnamese man (Uikey Kuay) make him laugh with a pleasure that looks utterly spontaneous. But there’s more of Williams the hero than of Williams the comic. People who want to see him running wild within a character ought to take a look at Michael Ritchie’s 1983 The Survivors or Roger Spottiswoode’s 1986 The Best of Times. (The only good laugh you get from Williams here is from his joke about three up and three down.)
Sanctimoniousness and comedy are a queasy combination. (They may also be the recipe for a hit.) When Adrian, who has become the hero of the troops (though he’s only in Saigon for five months), is on the street talking to a truckload of soldiers heading into action, he asks where they’re from and ribs them about their sexual innocence, and says things like “I won’t forget you,” and there’s forlorn music on the track. You wonder how the picture can take potshots at Bob Hope and still have Williams do this celebrity-entertainer routine. On Adrian’s arrival in Saigon, he’s met by a black soldier, Garlick, played by Forest Whitaker, and it’s Garlick who laughs hardest at Adrian’s jokes all through the movie. But this jovial fellow doesn’t have the courage to stand up to the brass and say what he thinks. (Only one man does.) When Adrian is forced out by the prigs, he gives Garlick a final truthtelling tape to put on the air, and Garlick takes the risk of putting it on—he becomes his own man. This movie has had the bad judgment to turn Robin Williams into a role model. Good Morning, Vietnam takes a real culture hero and turns him into a false one.
The New Yorker, January 11, 1988