Phil Alden Robinson’s film starts as a caustic comedy, and becomes a teary, life-affirming, and sentimental journey of a dying dad.
Phil Alden Robinson is a Hollywood screenwriter who has only directed a few feature films in his career. One of those movies was Field of Dreams, a hugely popular and highly acclaimed hit. Another was the underrated The Sum of All Fears, a really very good terrorism thriller than had the bad luck to come out shortly after the events of 9/11/01. And yet another was 1992’s Sneakers, easily one of my favorite movies, and one that I have seen dozens of times. Robinson is a soulful and attentive filmmaker who knows story, filmmaking, and visual storytelling better than many of his cinematic antecedents, usually finding a relatable, human angle to his stories, opting away from cynicism and anger. One could accuse him of being schmaltzy if he weren’t so dang sincere.
His newest film, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, seems like a caustic and cynical comedy on the surface. It stars Robin Williams as Henry Altmann, the titular angriest man, who flies into a rage over the smallest things; the film opens with a litany of things he loathes, which is pretty much everything from traffic to fat people. When he visits his doctor (Mila Kunis), he explodes at her in impatient incredulity, and she, out of spite, tells him he has a mere 90 minutes to live. Henry, hearing the news, has to very, very quickly reconsider his whole life. He now has a time limit to reconcile with his distant wife (Melissa Leo), make good with his much calmer brother (Peter Dinklage), and try to tell his alienated son (Hamish Linklater) that he loves him.
This has all the trapping of a mounting, frantic, frenetic slapstick farce. Indeed this premise has been explored before in films like 1990’s Short Time. But The Angriest Man in Brooklyn‘s slapstick premise – and promise of something broad – quickly gives way to warmth and philosophy. We eventually learn that Henry may actually be dying, and actually does have a time limit on his life. And while Williams is great at the wrathful ranting (it’s been said that most comedians operate from a place of anger), he quickly softens, trying to remain calm and collected as his life dwindles in front of him. The final race against the clock is not so much a grand climax, but an emotional crest as Henry uses his final 90 minutes to find his son.
Robinson clearly has a problem with cynicism. It’s easy to be – and easy to encounter – anger in the world today. Heck, log onto any website, and there is bubbling rage, defensiveness, and bitter assumptions always being made. In the internet era, anger seems to have made itself more visible. Robinson is using The Angriest Man in Brooklyn to combat anger, not to roll around in its ridiculousness. I would encourage comparison to the Adam Sandler film Anger Management, which was a broad, dumb farce that merely addressed comedians’ anger without much of a comment. This film seeks to exorcise anger altogether.
Despite its fitfully fulfilling emotional heft, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn is ultimately mildly trifling. It’s a smaller film, working with a small budget, and its message and impact are as subdued at its scope. There are a few golden moments, and the cast is great (James Earl Jones has a notable scene as a store clerk), but this film is not a hammer or a clarion call. It’s a small, friendly handshake. A passing smile from an old friend. Slight, but fun. You may be thinking about it afterward, but perhaps not. But it still perfectly nice.