Directed by Marina Zenovich
, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind is a fairly rudimentary bio-doc that fails to live up to its subtitle; the Robin Williams
presented in the film is no more knowable than Robin Williams the stand-up comedian or Robin Williams the Academy Award-winning actor. It asks questions about Williams, gives him a platform, marvels at his on-stage energy, but never manages to elicit or elucidate much in the way of genuine psychological insight. Perhaps a little too respectful of her subject, Zenovich avoids, for the most part, hagiography, but so too does she tend to gloss over some of the darker aspects, although it's certainly laudable that she refuses to allow the manner of his death become the defining moment of his life. What the film most definitely does have going for it, however, is the superbly chosen archival footage, which shows Williams at the absolute height of his powers. And, ultimately, the quality of much of this footage offsets the film's failure to offer anything resembling a deep dive into his thought-processes or private life.
The film covers all the major biographical beats that you'd expect - his 1971 appearance as Tranio in James Dunn's Wild West-themed production of The Taming of the Shrew at the College of Marin and subsequently the Edinburgh Festival Fringe; his 1973 scholarship to Juilliard, where he and Christopher Reeve
were the only students selected by John Houseman
to join the Advanced Program; the beginnings of his stand-up comedy career; his cocaine and alcohol addiction; his casting as the alien Mork in a fifth season episode of Happy Days (1974)
, where his largely improvised performance was so well received, it led to a spin-off show, Mork & Mindy (1978)
; his 1978 marriage to Valerie Velardi
; the death of his friend John Belushi
in 1982 from a heroin overdose, which led to Williams getting clean; his film career; his celebrated appearance alongside Steve Martin
in Mike Nichols
's 1988 production of Waiting for Godot at the Lincoln Centre; his divorce from Velardi in 1988; his marriage to Marsha Garces Williams
in 1989 and subsequent divorce in 2008; his 2009 open heart surgery; his 2011 marriage to Susan Schneider
; checking himself into rehab in 2014 to treat his remerging alcoholism; his diagnosis with early stage Parkinson's; and ultimately, his suicide.
Interviewees include Velardi, David Letterman
, Pam Dawber
, Billy Crystal
, Zak Williams
, Steve Martin, and Whoopi Goldberg
, with the obvious absentees being Garces, Schneider and his second and third children, Zelda Williams
and Cody Williams
. Their absence is never mentioned and it leaves a significant lacuna, especially towards the conclusion, where Schneider's insights would have been invaluable (her article, "The terrorist inside my husband's brain", from the September 2016 issue of Neurology, is a must-read).
As you would expect, a major area of interest is Williams's hyperkinetic brand of comedy, with the film's great strength lying not in the talking head interviews, but in the archival footage. We see the outtakes from his improvisations explaining the uses of a stick during his 1991 appearance on Sesame Street (1969)
; his 1986 performance at the Met Opera House; and his hilarious improvised "acceptance speech" at the 2003 Critics Choice Awards, where he was nominated for Best Actor alongside Jack Nicholson
and Daniel Day-Lewis
, and the result was declared a draw between Nicholson and Day-Lewis ("it's been a wonderful evening for me, to walk away with nothing; coming here with no expectations, leaving here with no expectations. It's pretty much been a Buddhist evening for me").
The film also tosses out some interesting facts. For example, his father was a very stern man, and it was when a young Williams saw him laugh at Jonathan Winters
, that he first began to consider a career in comedy. Also interesting is how he changed the manner in which sitcoms were shot. When he started on Mork & Mindy in 1978, all American sitcoms were shot with a basic three-camera set-up (one captured the wide shot, and the others captured close-ups). However, due to his unpredictable improvisational style, he would rarely stick to his marks, making it virtually impossible for close-ups, as the camera operators never knew where he was going to end up. And so, the show's executive producer Garry Marshall
introduced a fourth camera, whose sole purview was to follow Williams as he moved about the set.
The use of audio interviews with Williams, which act as narration, see him more contemplative, explaining, "I don't tell jokes, I use characters as a vehicle for me. I seldom just talk as myself." Which is, of course, a key admission, and which is one of the main themes of the film - the division between public and private. However, this also brings us to one of the film's main failings - the lack of exploration of the dissonance between these two aspects of his personality (the manic public comedian and the pensive private man); it's touched on a few times, but it's never explored in any detail. Indeed, for a film which literally invites the audience into the subject's mind, there's very little of any psychological worth to be found here.
Another problem is Zenovich's (perhaps understandable) unwillingness to depict with any degree of completeness some of the darker aspects of his life. Lip-service is given to much of it, but nothing more. So, for example, Elayne Boosler
talks about being his girlfriend whilst giving her blessing for him to be with other women; Billy Crystal explains that Williams was addicted to audience reaction, which gave him a sense of validation; Steve Martin discusses how difficult Williams found it to stay sober. However, apart from these brief moments during the talking head interviews, Zenovich never examines any of the issues thrown up. And as much as they are glossed over, there's nothing at all on Dawber's claim that Williams fondled her and exposed himself to her the set of Mork & Mindy. I can certainly understand why it's been left out, especially insofar as Dawber herself has said she was never offended or threatened ("there was nothing lascivious about it, in his mind. It was just Robin being Robin, and he thought it would be funny"), but it's rather conspicuous by its absence.
The film's structure is also a little unusual, focusing on his rise in the 70s and 80s and the last few years of his life, without spending a huge amount of time looking at the intervening years. There's next to nothing, for example, on his film work, with Zenovich devoting only a few seconds to his Oscar win for Good Will Hunting (1997)
. Because of this, when his 2014 suicide comes, it feels abrupt, with much of the narrative tapestry that brought him to that place skipped.
Nevertheless, although these problems are significant, fans of Williams will enjoy Come Inside My Mind. The film does lack any kind of psychological depth, and although the argument could be made that Williams was notoriously difficult to know even in real life, hence we shouldn't expect a documentary to lay him bare, the fact is that Zenovich doesn't really try. And I can't help but think that presenting some of the darker times with a more journalistic sense of objectivity would have been a more truthful approach. It wouldn't have tarnished his legacy, but it would have made for a deeper film. In the end, Williams was consumed by his demons, but Come Inside My Mind has sidelined those same demons as much as possible, hoping, perhaps, that we remember the laughter, without dwelling on the sadness.