Renaissance Man Movie Essay Review

"Renaissance Man" is a labored, unconvincing comedy that seems cobbled together out of the half-understood remnants of its betters.

Watching it, I felt embarrassed for the actors, who are asked to inhabit scenes so contrived and artificial that no possible skill could bring them to life. It's hard to believe that this is the work of Penny Marshall, whose films like "Big" and "A League Of Their Own" seemed filled with a breezy confidence.

The movie stars Danny DeVito as a divorced and broke Detroit advertising man who is fired from his job. He applies for unemployment compensation, and his counselor eventually finds him a job - as a civilian instructor on a nearby Army base. His assignment is to take a classroom of eight difficult cases and somehow increase their "basic comprehension" - of everything, I guess. This is made more difficult by DeVito's own lack of any basic comprehension of how the Army works.

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The class seems impossible to teach, and besides, he's no teacher. In desperation he begins to talk about Shakespeare, and the students, desperate for action, encourage him to say more. Eventually the class turns into a seminar on "Hamlet," and we are subjected once again to the dishonest fiction that academic knowledge can somehow be gained by enthusiasm and osmosis. Why, the students' mastery of the subject is so profound that in no time they've put together a classroom rap musical based on Shakespeare's story! (It helps that one of the students is played by Marky Mark.) My doubts about the possibility of teaching Shakespeare in this way are surpassed only by my doubts about how the exercise has anything to do with the Army. Those doubts are shared by a drill sergeant (Gregory Hines), who thinks DeVito is simply wasting the time of his recruits. The formula of this story requires DeVito to eventually "prove himself" to the sergeant, and the moment I saw the base's "Victory Tower," a dangerous obstacle course involving lots of climbing and crawling, I knew with a sinking conviction that sooner or later DeVito would be climbing down walls on ropes to win the respect of the men.

Graduate students of Shakespeare are often assigned to do a "source study" on one of his plays, reading Shakespeare's own sources for one of the histories, say, and then noting what the Bard kept, and what he changed.

"Renaissance Man" could also inspire a source study. It is obviously a cross between "Dead Poets Society" (unpromising students inspired by unconventional teacher) and "Private Benjamin" (desperate unemployed civilian joins the Army). Advanced students might want to research the sources of those films - which were retreads, yes, but at least less labored than "Renaissance Man." One odd quality about this movie is its gloominess. It seems strangely thoughtful and morose for a comedy, especially as it develops the stories of the various class members. The screenplay also has problems with logic. Are we really supposed to believe, for example, that DeVito can pawn the award he won in an advertising competition for enough money to buy his daughter a telescope and a trip out of the country to view an eclipse? The ending of the film is an exercise in phony suspense. See if you can follow this Army logic. The students are not required to take a final exam in the course. But if they take it, and fail, they'll flunk out of basic training. Therefore, they shouldn't take it, right? But so great is their transformation that they insist on taking it, and turn up in the classroom (after the obligatory 20 seconds of suspense in which DeVito thinks they won't come, and sad music plays). But the final is verbal, not written, with all the students in the room at the same time, so apparently they will pass or fail as a class, not as individuals. I say "apparently" because the ending suggests they do pass, but the movie absent-mindedly neglects to supply that information. Not that, by then, I cared.

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If you're looking for a learning experience, "Renaissance Man" is ready to teach you what the words simile, metaphor, oxymoron and formula mean. The last, in this case, refers to the story of a down-on-his-luck individual who gets a shot at redemption by teaching nice, somehow-disadvantaged innocents who can benefit from his wisdom. Maybe he's a coach ("The Air Up There," "Cool Runnings," "The Mighty Ducks") or maybe he's a failed ad copywriter (this film). Probably he's a white male, unless he's Whoopi Goldberg teaching nuns about rock-and-roll.

Inherently condescending, and finally awash in warm-bath sentimentality, this setup never goes out of style. It has certainly worked for Disney, whose "Dead Poets Society" is a landmark within this realm, and for Penny Marshall, whose "Awakenings" and "League of Their Own" flirted with the same motif. This time, Ms. Marshall directs the story of Bill Rago (Danny DeVito), whose advertising career is in ruins when he takes a temporary job educating Army recruits. The recruits are supposed to need remedial teaching, but they're funny, sensitive and eager to learn. When they stand up and read Bill their first creative writing exercises, their stories put the average screenwriter to shame.

"Renaissance Man," from a semi-autobiographical screenplay by Jim Burnstein, spends a lot of time watching Bill explain "Hamlet" to his charges. It enjoys its share of wisecracks, and beyond that means to be a cry for literacy and learning. But as a one-book movie, it's part of the problem rather than part of the solution. "Hamlet" is desperately overused, whether in bad jokes ("That's about a little bitty pig, right?") or impromptu musical exercises (the class recites "this above all, to thine own self be true" while practicing percussion). The strain is most evident in a scene that shows the class performing a supposedly spontaneous hip-hop "Hamlet" riff, while Mr. DeVito beams in frozen admiration.

The film's first half-hour is directed in such a wry, breezy style that its subsequent pedantic streak comes as a big letdown. As always, Ms. Marshall's rueful humor can be natural and disarming, provided it isn't working overtime to make the world a better place. Early scenes of Mr. DeVito in cranky combat with an unemployment-office worker, or reacting with horror to 4:30 A.M. reveille at the Army post, have an easy give-and-take. That relaxed tone is badly missed once the story takes its earnest turn.

So is the film's initially quick pacing: "Renaissance Man" runs longer than two hours, and would have been funnier with some of its padding removed. Yet even at its present length, the film has some confusing lapses, like the sight of a kitchen that Bill is told he will share with a next-door neighbor at the Army post. ("I've died and gone to Gomer Pyle's house," he complains.) No neighbor appears, and the house isn't seen again. Later on, a brief, implausible scene giving Bill a girlfriend seems shoehorned in just to advance a plot point. But the girlfriend may have played a larger role, since she makes a token appearance at the feel-good finale.

"Renaissance Man" does succeed in assembling a highly likable band of recruits. Their antics give the film some fizz, even when its Shakespearean pretensions threaten to flatten all else. The actors are appealing enough to override the fact that each of them has a one-sentence, fairly heartbreaking problem that will be addressed by the story's end. Outstanding among these performers are Kadeem Hardison as the group cut-up and Lillo Brancato Jr., still doing the De Niro imitation he perfected as the son in "A Bronx Tale." Mark (Marky Mark) Wahlberg, playing a tough Southern soldier who finds ample reasons to take his shirt off, oozes gritty confidence and makes a strong, swaggering impression on the big screen.

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