Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
Directed by Chris Columbus
Written by Randy Mayem Singer, Leslie Dixon
Starring Robin Williams, Sally Field, Mara Wilson, Pierce Brosnan
Release Date November 24th, 2023
Published November 28th, 2023
I feel like our culture has gaslighted us all for the past 30 years. During this time period our culture has maintained a notion that Mrs. Doubtfire is a classic comedy about a father who will do anything to be close to his kids following a separation and divorce from his kind but worn out ex-wife, played by Sally Field. If you look at the film simply through the lens of our culture-wide love affair with the late Robin Williams, you will only ever find people who think that Mrs. Doubtfire is an untouchable comedy classic, ranking among the best family comedies ever made.
If, however, you view the film without your rose colored glasses, Mrs. Doubtfire is a toxic mess. This is a sloppy and ludicrous movie that stops dead repeatedly so that Robin Williams can do annoying schtick more at home on a mediocre sitcom than in any mainstream feature comedy. But, even more insidious is the bizarre notion that Robin Williams' devoted dad is some kind of hero. This is patently absurd if you actually watch the movie. I recently watched Mrs. Doubtfire for the I Hate Critics 1993 podcast and the consensus among the three of us on the show is that Robin Williams is the villain of Mrs. Doubtfire.
I realize this is hard for some people to hear but it's true. Williams' Daniel is a terrible person. Every choice he makes, every desperate, sweaty attempt at fooling people, and all of the lying he does to cover his backside, Daniel is a villain. You can try and convince yourself that he does all of these things because he's being kept from his children, but the reality is that he could have been with his children as their father but he chose to be their friend and he chose not to be a good and caring partner to his wife. Those are the facts and I will happily lay them out for you.
Mrs. Doubtfire stars Robin Williams as Daniel, a father of three whom we meet as he quits his job as a voiceover artist. He does it because he doesn't want to voice a cartoon in which a character is seen smoking. He's concerned about the effect of seeing smoking in a cartoon might have on kids and I sympathize with that. However, can we pause and consider the level of privilege one must have to be able to quit a good job over a moral disagreement like this? A lot of us aren't in a financial position to be able to quit a job simply because we have a minor qualm.
So, why does Daniel feel comfortable walking out on his job? It's because his wife, Miranda (Sally Field), has a great job, a well paying job. It's a job that makes their life together with three kids possible and provides him the freedom to think he can quit his job on a whim. Quitting as he does allows Daniel time to pick up his kids from school and get home in time to throw a birthday party for his son that includes a petting zoo and dozens of kids who run around their house crawling on the furniture, throwing trash on the floor and bringing the pets from the zoo into the house.
When Miranda receives a call regarding the party, she's forced to leave work early to deal with the police department. When she gets home she's made the villain because she shuts down the party. It's implied strongly that this is a pattern. Daniel is the hero to the kids who buys gifts and is their best friend and Miranda is left to deal with the aftermath. Daniel claims that he was going to clean the house before she got home but that's unlikely. We will learn later that Daniel is quite a slob and cleaning isn't a priority for him.
Daniel then has the audacity to accuse Miranda of working too much and spending too much time among corporate types, not enough time with him and their kids. Forget that he has now made them a one income family and that he felt comfortable doing that because of the wealth she brings to the family, she's the villain in this. The movie wants us to be sympathetic to Daniel and that is just impossible. Daniel is a terrible husband. He's made her the villain while he gets to be everyone's friend and have all the fun and then gaslights her into thinking it's her fault.
Miranda, being a rational adult, is upset and she's finally had enough. She kicks Daniel out of the house and because he doesn't have a job or a place to live, she gets full custody of the kids. Once again, the framing of this series of scenes indicates that we are supposed to feel sorry for Daniel. I don't feel sorry for him. He's in this situation because of his own shortcomings. He's deeply irresponsible, emotionally cruel, and, much like the movie, he's manipulating us with his pained expression and tears over being away from his kids.
Then, Daniel comes up with the Mrs. Doubtfire scam. After Daniel manages to intercept Miranda's ad seeking a caretaker for the kids after school, Daniel, with the help of his brother, played by Harvey Fierstein, hatches a plan to create a persona that could sneak Daniel back into the family home. Using extensive Hollywood makeup, Fierstein's character and his husband are professional makeup artists, they create Mrs. Doubtfire, an English matron and a dream of a housekeeper. After torturing Miranda with a series of annoying phone calls from fake would be housekeepers, Daniel unleashes Mrs. Doubtfire and lands the job.
As Mrs. Doubtfire, Daniel is thoughtful, caring, he gets the kids to clean and do their homework. He takes care of the wash and makes a healthy dinner. He's a dream housekeeper. But what you are missing here is rather plain to see. Daniel could have been a great partner and father all along. He was perfectly capable of picking up the slack at home, getting the kids to do their homework, cleaning, cooking, he could have been an excellent husband. He chose not to be because he's a selfish, self-involved jerk. You can love your kids and still be a jerk and Daniel was a huge jerk.
And that's not funny. None of the schtick that Robin Williams does in Mrs. Doubtfire is remotely funny. He's gaslighting his entire family. He's manipulating everyone around him, including the audience, and the movie wants you to root for him. No, I will not root for him. Does he learn an important lesson by the end of the movie? Sort of, but it doesn't excuse his actions and he's never remotely sorry for having been a terrible husband. If anything, he uses Mrs. Doubtfire to try and further ruin his ex-wife's life by interfering in her new relationship with a character played by Pierce Brosnan.
And, of course, by the end, Daniel isn't punished for his lies, he doesn't apologize for his cruelty. What lesson does Daniel actually learn by the end? The galling end of Mrs. Doubtfire comes as Miranda realizes that her anger and hatred toward Daniel has been hurting the family. She agrees to joint custody and Daniel is rewarded with his very own Mrs. Doubtfire TV show. It's shockingly dimwitted that it is Miranda who is forced to admit that she's wrong. She was never wrong, Daniel is a creep and a liar and he deserved his one day a week status as a father.
I cannot stand Mrs. Doubtfire. I cannot stand the idea that we coddle men to such a degree that they must be forgiven for all their sins. An accomplished, caring, and generous woman is forced by a bad screenplay to say that she is the one who was wrong and that he's such a good father. The reality is that Daniel is a villain who learns nothing from his experience, sees no consequences from his actions, and is rewarded at every turn because he's 'a good father.' That depends on your definition of a father. Mrs. Doubtfire was a good father, Daniel is a selfish, entitled jerk.
On top of everything, Robin Williams isn't remotely funny in Mrs. Doubtfire. None of the schtick that he does is funny. It's lively, it's energetic, but it's not funny. Two times in Mrs. Doubtfire the film falls back on a sitcom cliché about someone trying to maintain a needless lie. Daniel lies to the person investigating him on behalf of the court that is deciding his custody, claiming that Mrs. Doubtfire is his sister. The scene is filled with painfully convoluted and contorted logic. It's torture to sit through. Equally unbearable is when this plot comes back again as Daniel has to be himself for a meeting at a restaurant and Mrs. Doubtfire at the same restaurant for a family dinner. Why? Why would he have to be both? It's so stupid and it's all just Robin Williams mugging and running, and never being funny.
It's the comedy of cringe. It's an anxiety elevating series of supposed gags during which Daniel nearly kills Miranda's date. His petty selfishness nearly gets Pierce Brosnan's character killed, causing him to choke on food and Daniel is only narrowly able to save him with the Heimlich maneuver. This is where Daniel's ruse is revealed and, though his family is upset with him, there are no real consequences. The dinner gets him his own TV show as Mrs. Doubtfire and the script will let him off the hook in court for no particularly good reason.
It's a toxic movie if we're being honest about it. I mentioned a scene early on, when Sally Field's Miranda came home early from work and the party was happening. There is a genuine ugliness to Daniel's response to her shutting down this out of control nonsense. The film frames her as the villain as he goes on about her not having fun anymore and spending time on her corporate job with her corporate friends. It's seriously gross and for the movie to try and frame Miranda as the villain in this moment and several others, before forcing her to say that she was wrong to react the way she did, with anger and resentment, is truly messed up. If you can't see why that is messed up, you might need to examine your own life.
Mrs. Doubtfire is the latest subject of the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast Spinoff, I Hate Critics 1993. On this show myself and my cohosts, Gen-Z'er M.J and Gen-X'er Amy look back on the movies released 30 years earlier that same weekend. The show is about looking at how movies and culture have changed over the last three decades and it's a lot of fun. You can find I Hate Critics 1993 on the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast feed, wherever you listen to podcasts. Past episodes include us loving 1993's parody movies, being indifferent to The Nightmare Before Christmas, and hating the Academy Award nominated The Remains of the Day.
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