HBO's Funny, Poignant Robin Williams Documentary Doesn't Quite Dig Deep Enough

Comedy Reviews Robin Williams
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HBO's Funny, Poignant Robin Williams Documentary Doesn't Quite Dig Deep Enough

Celebrity suicides are almost always major news, but until the recent death of Anthony Bourdain I don’t think there was one that generated as much public shock as that of Robin Williams. In fact I know at least one person who was hospitalized for depression over it. So I was pretty sure Marina Zenovich’s Come Inside My Mind was going to be penetrating on that subject. It isn’t. But what it does give us is a valuable enough document of the life of an important performer.

Williams was a local guy, for me. I didn’t know him, but I certainly have friends who did. He and my mom went to the same college. I used to see him on his bike now and then. My sister ran into him in a friend’s powder room in the middle of the night once in high school. They filmed parts of Mrs. Doubtfire a mile from my folks’ place and no one got that exercised about it: Hey, look, it’s Robin. Again. I mean—he was around. But it wasn’t just for us that he felt like a neighbor. I think millions of people felt like that.

At the beginning of Come Inside My Mind there’s an interesting bit of footage where a somewhat older Williams is asked a question about his process and leaps from his chair and starts off on one of his trademark verbal machine gun volleys. It’s interesting because it’s dog-tired and totally annoying (does he have to be a wind-up toy?) and distinctly unfunny. And yet one cannot help having an emotional reaction to it. First, you laugh in spite of the fact (or because of the fact) that you are watching this man do the same worn out cokey rat-a-tat Jonathan Winters-derivative schtick he’s been doing since the 1970s and that it seems frighteningly… compulsive, like he is at its mercy. One is also strangely touched by it, and perhaps for the same reasons. What we seem to be seeing is a person somewhat held hostage by the relentlessness of his own mind—and perhaps one who is only completely alive when he is making people laugh.

Come Inside My Mind is a basically linear biographical documentary, following Williams’s childhood in the Midwest, his teen years in Marin County, his training at Juilliard and the bizarre accident that vaulted him to fame (if we must thank George Lucas for something perhaps it is the accident of timing that made Star Wars grab the Zeitgeist and ultimately require the presence of a “space man” on the set of Happy Days). It tracks his marriages, his battle with substance abuse, his friendships with people like Billy Crystal and Bobcat Goldthwait. It focuses more on his trajectory as a comedian than a film actor but one is certainly given a sense of a person catapulted into stardom and the toll that tends to take.

All of that is interesting. But for me, the standout feature of this documentary is not “man crumbles under the pressure of success.” At all. What pops out of all that archival footage is quite the opposite, actually. I don’t think Williams had trouble coping with a stratospheric career. I think he might have been a relatively rare example of someone who was 100% built for it. I suspect the pressure mounted when he wasn’t in front of an audience.

Some people just plain burn hotter than others. Robin Williams was a human bonfire and applause was the oxygen that fed him. He had a sort of generosity that—I was about to call it “tireless” and I think that’s completely the wrong word: It was exhaustive. The man never sat still. (One of the great moments notes that Williams completely broke the three-camera sitcom setup; his intense physicality and jaw-dropping antics prompted a fourth camera on the set of Mork and Mindy so they wouldn’t miss the good stuff.) He wasn’t a big guy but he had a physical presence that could fill the room, even if the room was the Met. He thought fast, spoke fast, moved fast… lived fast.

So while this might be a less-than-popular opinion I have to say after watching Come Inside My Mind that for anyone who accepts that invitation, if at the end of the film you still bemoan the “preventable tragedy” of his choice to exit the stage when he did, you maybe need to watch more carefully. Robin Williams was a performer to his bone marrow, the kind of person who, while I’m sure he also loved his family and enjoyed downtime, was probably most himself and most alive in front of an audience. And he was facing the loss of… well, of his mind. I’ve always recoiled from the condescending suggestions that people like Robin Williams could have been kept alive if they had known to seek help—seriously, the man went through two divorces, a battle with substance abuse, and the overwhelming pressure of a stratospheric and very public-facing career. Does anyone seriously believe a man like that simply didn’t understand there were antidepressants and therapists?

I have read a handful of early reviews of this film, and find it bizarre that it’s noted as a tiny coda that Robin Williams had been diagnosed not only with Parkinson’s disease but with Lewy body dementia, and even more bizarre that people who have seen the film still seem to think his death was about depression or inability to handle the pressures of fame or some “tears of a clown” hooey about the strange (it is not actually strange) coincidence (it is not actually a coincidence) of so many comedians being sad and estranged and lonely in their private lives. People: the man was losing his body and his mind to two savage and incurable neurological diseases. Both of them run in my family so I can unfortunately tell you from personal experience that you don’t have to be a famously quick-witted, fast-talking, highly physical performer to get that diagnosis and say “Yep: We’re done here.” Parkinson’s doesn’t technically kill (though it would have killed his career), but Lewy body dementia does, and it is a slow, agonizing death over the course of which you do in fact lose your mind, your memory, your sense of self, your ability to manage your own bodily functions. If there is an ironclad rationale for choosing to end your life, surely it is the prospect of an inevitable, painful, protracted death. Are we really still talking about shocking preventable tragedy or how people need to learn there is help available for depression?

As a birds’-eye view bio of the career of an important comedian who died too young, this film is funny, poignant and informative. I wish Come Inside My Mind had done what I assumed the title was implying it would do. I wish it had gone farther into what had, in fact, entered Robin Williams’ brain, and taken a little more care to emphasize what that meant. It might have provided a vital data point for people who were baffled by his death. I knew he’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s but I didn’t know about the other part until I saw this movie, and I am probably far from alone. I feel it should have been less of a coda and more of a heart-note. People took Robin Williams’s death very hard. I can’t help feeling that a film about his life had an obligation to give his suicide a little more of a firm context.

However, while that strikes me as a fairly glaring irresponsibility, what it does give us of Williams’s life and career is well-constructed and thoughtful. And you will laugh.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.