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MOVIE REVIEW : Robin Williams Is Solid Gold as the Deejay in 'Good Morning, Vietnam'

December 25, 1987|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

There's such a wild disparity between the overall quality of "Good Morning, Vietnam" (citywide) and Robin Williams' lead performance, they almost seem to be operating in different reality zones, parallel worlds. The film itself--a dramatic comedy based on the 1965 Saigon gig of irreverent Armed Forces disc jockey Adrian Cronauer--is good-hearted but shallow. It's a piece of programmed irreverence, photogenic torpor, prefab compassion.

But Williams, as Cronauer, is so blazingly brilliant that he detonates the center, exploding it in berserk blasts of electronic-age surreality. When he does Cronauer's anarchic broadcasts--screeching "Goo-oo-oood mornin', Viet- nam!" and launches into bursts of giddy, wildfire free association, punctuated with Motown and '60s rock--he's transformed. Suddenly he's a human cable network, flipping through a hundred channels, a knife slicing through the molasses of the movie's soggy comedy.

Williams at the mike is like a man possessed, purified, liberated. Startling chains of ideas and wild leaps of imagery pour out of him: He's like a Crazy Eddie of show-biz dada. These routines are so distinctive, it's not surprising to learn that director Barry Levinson gave Williams his head and let him ad-lib on camera. Sprung loose, he'll vault from a put-down of Freddy and the Dreamers to a crazed mishmash of devil worship, "The Twilight Zone," "The Wizard of Oz" and Hanoi Hannah--four chords weaving in frenzied counterpoint.

This energy carries over into his other scenes. While the rest of the actors--even the best, like Forest Whitaker as sweet, shambling sidekick Garlick and Noble Willingham as a crusty, protective general--tend to get bogged down in one-note characters, Williams often triumphs over weak scenes by sheer timing. He snaps the lines and tweaks their tips with an offhand bravado. Almost single-handedly, he makes "Good Morning, Vietnam" special. Without him it might be failed satire, clinging to the obvious like a drowning man to an anvil.

The story seems to be in Levinson's special vein--a male-bonding cooedy with socio-historical detail--and he and his regular cameraman, Peter Sova, give it a good, clean look: sunny, haphazard and sharp, like a French or Italian quasi-documentary political thriller. But Levinson did not write this script and the characters rarely develop an inch beyond our first view of them. None of the scenes, except for Williams' monologues, have the wit and bite of "Diner" or "Tin Men"--even the ones you'd expect to be similar, like the deejay bull sessions at Jimmy Wah's bar.

The screenwriter, Mitch Markowitz, has written for both TV's "MASH" and the National Lampoon--but his script here is like a lazy combination of both: warmed-over "MASH" laced with second-rate Lampoon scatology and political cracks. Somehow it becomes less an anti-war film than an anti-Army film; we might conclude that Vietnam was a bad war because chuckle-headed radio programmers were persecuting their disc jockeys, censoring the news and driving their audiences crazy with playlists of Mantovani and Lawrence Welk. Apparently, Southeast Asia didn't need either Mahatma Gandhi or General Patton; it needed Wolfman Jack.

In his place, Cronauer is portrayed as a crazed but compassionate media imp, gallantly and tenderly wooing beautiful Vietnamese women and wreaking havoc with the tight-necked Army bureaucrats--neurotic Lt. Hauk (Bruno Kirby) and sadistic Sgt. Major Dickerson (J. T. Walsh)--while frying the brains of his GI audiences with the Stones, James Brown and the Beach Boys. The movie makes Cronauer into more of a rebel and hero than he really was; it shows him reading forbidden news and consorting, unknowingly, with terrorists. His foes first try to fire him, and then to get him killed or exiled; in real life, Cronauer just finished his tour and went home, a model for most of the deejays who followed him.

Markowitz's idea of culture-clash humor is to bring on a flitty Saigon bar owner with a yen for nude photos of Walter Brennan, or show Cronauer taking his Vietnamese English class to a subtitled matinee of "Beach Blanket Bingo." He seems incapable of resisting cheap shots: The villainous Hauk demands that Cronauer abandon his Marx Brothers style and do zany material like the Keystone Kops, when it's highly unlikely that Hauk would ever have seen the Keystone Kops.

In contrast to the lunar intensity of Williams' performance, the script keeps thudding and splattering against its obvious targets--Ray Conniff, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and his daughters--with a slapdash, pie-in-the-eye style that isn't too far from Mack Sennett.

One performance, however, can sometimes save a movie, and that's pretty much what Robin Williams does here. One has to credit Levinson, Sova, composer Alex North, the other actors; there's even a seemingly scripted scene--Cronauer's farewell to a departing troop convoy--that has the right blend of humor and sentiment. Yet the great moments in "Good Morning, Vietnam" (MPAA rated R for language) are in Williams' improvisations. When Levinson cuts the reins and lets him wing it, Williams kicks the movie up to the sublimely ridiculous, hot-wires it into realms of quick-witted chaos. He gives a fine, freezingly cheery hello and goodby to the hell of war and the purgatory of radio.

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