ROBIN WILLIAMS: COME INSIDE MY MIND Is an Absolute Joy (Sundance Review)

“He needed that little extra hug that you can only get from strangers,” Billy Crystal recalls of his dear, departed friend Robin Williams in Marina Zenovich’s new documentary  Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind. It is an offhand comment, but one that is deeply emblematic of the driving force of Williams’ life: the inescapable need to make people smile. With several biographical documentaries under her belt, Zenovich approaches Williams’ life story with a deft hand and a profound sense of empathy, seeking to weave a tapestry of the life of a deeply talented man for whom spreading joy was his lifeblood. Using a combination of archival footage, never-before-seen clips and interviews, and videos of Williams’ stand-up routines, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind paints a picture of a man whose mind worked a bit differently than everyone else’s, without glossing over his struggles with substance abuse and the pitfalls of sudden and overwhelming fame.

Image: CBS

Zenovich enlists many of Williams’ trusted confidantes like Billy Crystal, Eric Idle, Pam Dawber, his first wife Valerie Velardi, and his son Zak Williams to give outside context to Williams’ storied life, but the film is at its best when it lets Williams himself do the talking. In a series of never-before-heard interviews, Williams reflects on his childhood as he goes from preppy private schoolboy to hippy-dippy actor, providing a rare insight into the man behind the myth. Contrary to his public persona, Williams is shown to be a quiet, introspective person in his private life, and first turned to comedy in an effort to make his parents laugh. As show in the documentary, Williams’ mother was hilarious in her own right, but Williams’ father was a stern, taciturn man. The power of comedy became apparent for Williams when his usually stone-faced father cracked up watching a Jonathan Winters’ routine on TV. The seed had been planted, but it wouldn’t fully begin to blossom until Williams impersonated his high school history teacher during a senior class parody. From there, Williams’ talents grew at an exponential rate and his meteoric rise truly began, taking him from the comedy clubs of San Francisco to televisions all across America to sold-out shows at the Metropolitan Opera House to full-blown celebrity.The film follows a rather formulaic biopic structure, tracing the arc of Williams career from his humble beginnings in the Bay Area to international superstar to his haunted final days, and gives a decent overview of his life and career. Zenovich makes expert use of rare outtakes from Sesame StreetMork and Mindy, and home movies to show the lightning-quick alacrity with which Williams’ mind worked, and goes to great lengths to hammer home this notion of Williams as a man who had a biological imperative to make merry–even at the cost of his personal relationships. At multiple points throughout the film, Williams mentions the rush of endorphins from performing and getting a laugh, and the natural high they provided him. Yet as a counterpoint to the film, Zak Williams notes that he and his siblings had to grow accustomed to the idea that their father was only around for part of the year, noting how one Christmas he suddenly decided to do a USO tour and entertain troops stationed all across the Middle East. This neurotic need to make others laugh was a double-edged sword, as it helped Williams spread joy to a global audience, but cost him two marriages in the process.

While the film is very much a celebration of Williams’ triumphs, it doesn’t shy away from addressing his struggles with drug abuse, womanizing, and infidelity. During the late ’70s and early ’80s, Williams’ star was on the rise and soon the comedian found himself hanging out with the likes of Robert De Niro and John Belushi, and reaping the spoils of celebrity, which for Williams meant copious drug use, alcohol consumption, and one-night stands. John Belushi’s sudden and untimely death by overdose on March 5, 1982 was a particularly sobering moment for Williams, who was with Belushi the night of his passing. It wouldn’t be the end of Williams’ struggles with substance abuse, but it was most assuredly a wake-up call. That being said, its exploration of these issues–and of Williams itself–feels superficial in places, opting to celebrate Williams’ life rather than completely exhume the skeletons in his closet.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, on the whole, doesn’t feel particularly revelatory or offer any profound insight into Williams’ life, but it is slickly produced and makes for a compelling watch especially for those who are lifelong fans of the late actor. While the film wears out its welcome in places, it is difficult to feel disengaged or frustrated when you see the urgency and vibrancy with which Williams tackled each performance. To illustrate this, Zenovich shows the entirety of Williams’ 2003 Critics’ Choice Awards “acceptance speech,” in which he hilariously riffed off the cuff at lightning speed after losing to both Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis. Nicholson asked Williams to come up and deliver an acceptance speech on their behalf, and the rest…well, the rest is hilarious history.

Much like Williams’ own life, the film ends on a dour note as it explores his dark final days during which Williams struggled with Parkinson’s and dementia. When you know firsthand how a condition like Parkinson’s can rob you of formerly simple joys and make you feel as though you’re no longer in control of your mind and body, the archival footage and interviews are absolutely heartbreaking. Ultimately, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind is a fine film, a living document of the life and times of one of the greatest performers of all time. This film will make you laugh, it’ll make you cry, and it’ll make you miss the singular force of nature that was Robin Williams. As I wrote on Twitter immediately following the film, my face hurts from smiling and my heart hurts from his absence. Rest in peace, Robin Williams, and thanks for all the laughs.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 burritos

Featured image courtesy of Sundance Institute

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Dan Casey is the senior editor of Nerdist and the author of books about  Star Wars and  the Avengers. Follow him on Twitter ( @DanCasey).

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