Hands up if you think the best way to deal with your divorce is to dress up as a member of the opposite sex, become a housekeeper for your former spouse, and spy on your family under the disguise. If you put your hand up, chances are you probably aren’t mentally capable of handling a marriage, let alone a divorce. Also, you may be the protagonist of Mrs. Doubtfire, a movie which sees a mentally unstable man be rewarded for doing just this.
Daniel Hillard (Robin Williams) is an actor—especially a voice actor—who is often between jobs and doesn’t take life particularly seriously. He’s married to Miranda (Sally Field), who is the opposite. He loses a job and gets divorced within the film’s first few scenes, setting the mood for the “fun,” “zany” comedy that is to follow. Miranda decides she needs a housekeeper to help take care of the kids, and when she decides not to hire Daniel for the role, he dresses up as an elderly Scottish woman and charms his way into the position. He gets to spend more time with his children, which is cool, but he also gets to spy on his ex-wife as well as sabotage any potential romance she might attempt. And he does just that.
The film flips around between being exceptionally problematic, kind of sweet, terrifyingly creepy, and a little bit depressing. It wants to be this meditation on divorce and parenting and sometimes gets there, but that gets largely lost in the shuffle. Its comedy is not especially great, its protagonist is, at best, a little mentally unstable, and the whole thing feels more than a touch wrong, especially with how it winds up concluding.
It’s also way too long, with several of its skits and montages feeling like they drag on and on. There’s more than one instance where Daniel has to go back and forth between his disguise and his normal appearance, and both of them feel like they run long. There are a handful of decent jokes but many of them aren’t especially funny or clever.
That’s not to say that Mrs. Doubtfire isn’t without its strengths. The makeup and prosthetic work to turn Robin Williams into this character are both exceptional, even if the film does decide to show us the whole “dress-up” process too often and in too much depth. And Williams is great as the lead. He gets to showcase his range of vocal performance and do a bit of physical comedy. His comedic timing, of course, is fantastic. He gives his character as much humanity as he can, too; it’s possible the only reason that Dennis is even remotely tolerable—and not thought of as the monster he quite clearly is—is because of Williams.
Mrs. Doubtfire is a movie that goes on for too long, has a lot of jokes fall completely flat, and has a protagonist who is very difficult to root for. It seems misguided, in a sense, especially looking at it now. When it occasionally works, it’s an effective tale about a man struggling to deal with losing his job, kids, and wife—but it gets to distracted with dress-up hijinks in order for that to be the takeaway. Williams is good and the makeup/prosthetic work is solid, but the rest of the movie is an incredibly mixed bag that falls more often on the “not good” side of the spectrum.
Conclusion: Overlong and tonally confused, Mrs. Doubtfire is a comedy lacking in many areas.
Recommendation: Unless you’re doing a Robin Williams retrospective, there’s little reason to watch Mrs. Doubtfire.