Renaissance Man (1994)
Dir. by Penny Marshall
Starring Danny DeVito, Gregory Hines and James Remar
Unemployed advertising executive Bill Rago, desperate for any job he can get, takes a gig teaching “basic comprehension” to Army recruits about to wash out of Basic Training. He has no idea where to begin, until they express interest in the book he was reading: Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Seizing on this inspiration, he decides that if he can teach them to comprehend the Bard, then they’ll be able to comprehend anything.
My parents taped this off of Pay-Per-View some time in late 1994 or early 1995. It became one of my go-to comedies for most of high school and parts of college, until I gradually grew less enamored of it and then stopped watching it entirely. It didn’t help that my roommate for two years hated the movie. I don’t think I’ve seen it in at least ten years now, maybe even fifteen.
The “inspiring teacher” movie was a major subgenre throughout the 1980s and 90s, though you don’t see a whole lot of it these days (and when you do, it’s more often of the “inspiring high school sports coach” variety). In movies such as Lean On Me, Stand and Deliver and Dead Poets Society, an unconventional teacher would take over a class of underperforming students, often in inner city environments, and turn around both their academic and social lives. These movies, even if they starred comedians, such as Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, were almost always serious inspirational dramas.
I’m not sure if Renaissance Man was supposed to be a more comedic take on the genre, or an outright parody of it. Whichever it is, it preserves most of the sentimentality of a lot of inspiring teacher movies without really providing much in the way of comedy, and the comedic elements that are present detract from the drama in the second half of the film. It doesn’t help that the central conceit of the film, teaching Shakespeare to Army recruits, is an inherently ludicrous premise for a film that feels like it’s coming out of a parody.
Most of the laughs that film has can be found in the first half an hour or so, as Bill Rago – an acerbic, sarcastic, fairly unlikeable individual – loses his job, complains his way through the unemployment line, and snarks to his new Army bosses in a way that would probably get him fired in real life. Once he gets to the actual classroom, the movie descends into uncomfortable, though occasionally amusing, digs at his students’ supposed lack of intelligence. While most of them appear to be close to illiterate, they’re all a lot more competent than the movie initially makes them out to be. Even so, them taking to Hamlet like it was Game of Thrones is a bit much, even for me.
Probably the best laugh in the film comes from the one good sequence of physical comedy in a movie otherwise focused on snark. After having his students leave class early when he’s late due to a job interview, Rago pursues them to their next activity in an attempt to get them to return. It just so happens to be an obstacle course involving a climbing tower. The sight of Danny DeVito, never the greatest physical specimen at any point in his career, following the Army recruits through this course, and eventually (very awkwardly) down a rappelling wall, is probably the highlight of the film.
Unfortunately, that’s pretty much where the laughs end. There’s a lot of generic sentimental “inspirational” filmmaking (one character recites the St. Crispin’s Day speech to his drill sergeant at night in a rainstorm, for example), and an attempt to be current, with the students performing a Hamlet-inspired rap, that falls flat. Rago cleans up his act, commits to his students, and becomes a better teacher and human being. He’s also magically able to get one of his students, a drug dealer who gets discharged and arrested mid-movie, released on early parole, in perhaps the least plausible moment in a movie filled with them. The movie was directed by Penny Marshall, who’d made her name as a director with a string of movies, such as Big and A League of Their Own, that successfully mixed comedy and sentimentality. She’s obviously trying for the same thing here, but it never comes together into anything worthwhile.
It’s not the worst comedy I’ve ever seen. A couple of jokes about rural stereotypes aside, there wasn’t really anything that I found offensive about it (unlike, say, Ace Ventura), and it’s a fairly watchable film. It’s just got nothing remarkable at all about it, and is way too sentimental for its own good.
-Unlike my last movie, If Looks Could Kill, which was also set in Detroit, this one at least makes an attempt to actually look and feel like the city. It opens with a montage of mid-90s Detroit landmarks, Rago works in the Renaissance Center (get it?) and he takes his estranged daughter out to a Tigers game that was recognizably filmed in the actual Tiger Stadium.
-One of Rago’s students is played by a very young Mark Wahlberg, fresh off of his Marky Mark days, in his first film role. The movie also inexplicably excludes him from the aforementioned rap scene, even though he was almost entirely famous just for rapping at the time.