Papa's Got A Brand New Drag

CAN A MOVIE BE BOTH A DELIGHT AND A drag? Yes, if its name is Mrs. Doubtfire. Simply put, I've rarely laughed so much at a movie I generally disliked. If you're a fan of Robin Williams (and who in his right mind isn't?), how can you resist the prospect of seeing him gussied up as a prim and proper 60-year-old English nanny--the guise he dons to spend time with his three children when his estranged wife (Sally Field) is awarded sole custody in their divorce? Williams makes a phenomena] old gal. You may not buy the pretext that forces him to such extremes (it never makes sense that Field won't let him have more contact with the kids), but you won't doubt that his own children would be fooled by their daddy's dowdy drag. Busty, prudishly maternal, Williams disappears inside his mountain of makeup and emerges with a characterization of hilarious pursed-mouth pungency.

Williams occupies this movie like a diamond encased in a tub of stale pudding. As directed by Chris Columbus and written by Randi Mayem Singer and Leslie Dixon, "Mrs. Doubtfire" aspires to be a heartfelt comedy about broken family values that will simultaneously make you laugh and cry. It succeeds at the former, but may have you crying for an editor when it takes on the tone of an after-school special on self-esteem. We're meant to believe that when Daniel Hillard, an irresponsible but sweetly childlike clown, turns into the miraculous Mrs. Doubtfire, he/she magically brings out the best in his family and himself.

Comparisons to "Tootsie" have been tossed around, but Columbus's comedy lacks precisely the edge of reality that gave that movie its bite and feeling. The model Hillard kids are pure TV sitcom, their every cute reaction milked in close-up. Field's workaholic mom is so sketchily written you can't imagine that she and Williams were ever a couple. Now that she's embarked on an affair with the rich, too handsome Pierce Brosnan, why does she put up with Mrs. D.'s meddlesome Victorian attempts to obstruct her budding romance? And as funny as the nanny's insults to the new beau are, it's strange that Brosnan doesn't utter a peep of protest. just why, for that matter, does everybody love this bossy lady so much? Farce demands rigorous internal logic: Columbus clumsily switches gears between slapstick and sappy family-therapy sessions. The movie keeps making the sensible point that one shouldn't talk down to children. The problem with "Mrs. Doubtfire" is that it talks down to grown-ups.

But who would want to miss the moment when Robin Williams, searching for the woman be should become, suddenly turns into Streisand, belting out "Don't Rain on My Parade"? Or the moment when his false teeth fall into his drink? With so much healing laughter at their disposal, why did the filmmakers feel the need to pour on the castor oil of message? They've taken Mrs. Doubtfire's Victorian remedies too much to heart.