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Classic Movie Review: 'Renaissance Man'

Hip Hop, Shakespeare, Dead Poet's Society and Danny Devito, none of these things survive the horror of Renaissance Man.

By Sean PatrickPublished 19 days ago 5 min read
It's funny because he's short, get it?

Renaissance Man (1994)

Directed by Penny Marshall

Written by Jim Burnstein

Starring Danny Devito, Mark Wahlberg, Gregory Hines, James Remar, Cliff Robertson

Release Date June 3rd, 1994

Published June 5th, 2024

When I described what the movie Renaissance Man was about to my co-hosts on the I Hate Critics 1994 Podcast, they refused to believe that I was telling the truth. They refused to believe that Danny Devito plays an advertising executive who becomes a teacher on a military base and saves a group of at-risk soldiers by teaching them Shakespeare via hip hop. Reading back my description, I can understand the incredulous responses of my co-hosts. Reading back my own description, I can't really believe that the movie Renaissance Man exists. I also cannot believe that a movie this hackneyed and mawkish was directed by someone as talented as Penny Marshall. In fact, I choose to believe this was directed by her hack brother Garry as this is exactly the kind of tripe he always directed.

Indeed, Renaissance Man stars Danny Devito as Bill Rago, a raging jerk of an ad-man who gets himself quite reasonably fired from his job for showing up late and generally bungling a big client meeting through his selfish, self-serving, arrogant, narcissism. Pro-Tip for screenwriters, how you introduce your main character is important, if you don't intend for us to hate your main character, come up with a way to introduce him that doesn't make us automatically loathe his presence. The fact this is Danny Devito and I cannot stand this character, says a lot. Devito is a beloved actor and seeing him in a lead role in a comedy should be welcoming. It's most assuredly not welcoming in Renaissance Man.

Out of a job, Bill goes to the unemployment office were we get our third exposition dump in the first 15 minutes of this dreadful movie. Jennifer Lewis, a wonderful character actor, lays out the plot for us, does a bit of needless business that someone making this movie thought was funny, and then sends Bill on to the actual plot of the film. The unemployment office has found Bill a job on a military base. Since he has a masters degree, Bill will be teaching Basic Comprehension to a group of soldiers on the brink of being kicked out of the Army.

The ragtag crew includes bumpkins and poor people of varying ethnicity. They bicker and bully and have no interest in saving their military careers until Bill decides to teach them Shakespeare. Apparently, learning and reciting Hamlet is somehow enough for these soldiers to stay in the military after being on the brink of being kicked out? Who knows, this movie is so thoroughly idiotic that these soldiers could have watched a newsreel about venereal diseases and as long and as they actually showed up, they would have been safe. So why does Bill even need to be here? Truly? The final exam for this 'Basic Comprehension' course that Bill randomly turns into a class on Shakespeare, is OPTIONAL. They don't have to take the final exam and they get to stay in the Army. What even is this movie?

But yeah, hip hop, right? The soldiers learn Hamlet and, in an attempt to impress Bill, they turn Hamlet into a hip hop dance number. Why? I don't know, boredom? They have nothing better to do? At this point in the movie, they've already read through Hamlet and have begun to enjoy Shakespeare's storytelling. The choice to make Hamlet into a hip hop dance tune is just for fun, I guess. It's not fun for us in the audience who can sense the movie desperately pandering to a youth audience in 1994, but I can assume it must have been fun for someone.

The makers of Renaissance Man clearly think that they are making a Dead Poet's Society for the 90s and this misguided belief makes the movie poignantly misguided on top of being generally terrible. After an ungodly runtime, a random member of our class of hip hop Hamlet rapping soldiers is assigned to deliver a piece from a completely different Shakespeare play, Henry V. Private Benitez, played by Lillo Brancato, delivers Shakespeare's St. Crispin's Day Speech with great fervor and little else. The filmmakers believe that this is a triumphant tribute to Bill as a teacher, his O Captain, My Captain moment, but the moment is desperately unearned as this character is just a random member of an ensemble who seems to have been chosen at random to deliver this moment.

Renaissance Man is the first film in the career of Mark Wahlberg who, at the time, was better known as a hip hop artist, model, and dancer. Can you guess who doesn't rap or dance in the Hamlet rap? Mark Wahlberg. I'm not complaining, I never thought he was a very good rapper. But, it's funny and telling of how this movie was approached by the filmmakers that the one guy known for rapping is chosen specifically not to rap. And this is the same guy who has two songs on the film soundtrack. Make it make sense. The songs on the soundtrack maybe told the filmmakers he shouldn't rap, they are both terrible songs. But, both songs appear in the movie so, again, make it make sense.

I loathe this movie, in case you cannot tell. It's a defiantly bad movie. It's a film so desperately market tested that it should come to you with a questionnaire if you choose to watch it. It's a movie calculated for the movie marketplace as if A.I software was given the prompts: Shakespeare, Hip Hop, Dead Poet's Society, and Military, and the A.I spit out this exact script. If you told me that A.I became sentient and Terminator style went back in time to start ruining pop culture and the first result was the movie Renaissance Man, I would have to believe you. It's as probable as someone as talented as Penny Marshall accidentally making a movie so bad that only her brother Garry could make it worse.

Renaissance Man is the subject of the latest I Hate Critics 1994 Podcast. Each week myself and my co-hosts, Gen-Z'er M.J and Gen-X'er Amy, watch a movie released 30 years ago that weekend. The goal is to track how movies and popular culture have changed in a mere 30 years. I Hate Critics 1994 is a spinoff of the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast and can be found on the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast feed wherever you listen to podcasts. Recent subjects on the show include The Crow, Beverly Hills Cop 3, and Cops and Robbersons. Soon, thankfully, we get to watch and discuss Speed, so, it's not all bad movies and The Crow.

Find my archive of more than 20 years and more than 2000 movie reviews at SeanattheMovies.blogspot.com. Find my modern review archive on my Vocal Profile, linked here. Follow me on Twitter at PodcastSean. Follow the archive blog on Twitter at SeanattheMovies. Listen to me talk about movies on the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast. If you have enjoyed what you have read, consider subscribing to my writing on Vocal. If you'd like to support my writing, you can do so by making a monthly pledge or by leaving a one time tip. Thanks!

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About the Creator

Sean Patrick

Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast I am a voting member of the Critics Choice Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.

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