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Movie Review : DeVito Strengthens a Soppy ‘Renaissance Man’ : The actor tones down his usual demeanor and parts of the film delight, but many incidents seem trumped up.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Renaissance Man” wants to own your tear ducts. It’s got a sop for every audience and happy endings coming out of its ears. There’s a fine line between delighting an audience and pandering to it. “Renaissance Man” leapfrogs across the line.

What complicates the issue is that, in snatches, the film does delight. Phony hokum becomes heartfelt hokum. Danny DeVito plays out-of-work ad exec Bill Rago, Princeton graduate, who grudgingly takes a job through the local welfare office teaching eight educationally disadvantaged Army recruits at a nearby post.

This “Dead Poets Society"/ “Corn Is Green” setup always seems to work on some level--movies about the inspirations of education can be inspiring--and the liveliest moments in “Renaissance Man” involve Bill’s classroom wheedlings and back talk. Initially marking time while hunting for a “real” job, he finds himself roused to help his troops. He discovers an improbable way to reach them--by teaching them “Hamlet.”

Screenwriter Jim Burnstein reportedly worked a job very much like Bill’s, but many of the incidents in the film seem trumped up. Bill’s washout students are, of course, not really washouts; they just need to be cared for. They’re like racially mixed Dead End Kids for the dysfunctional ‘90s. Most of them have sob stories: Miranda (Stacey Dash) was ditched by her mother; Brian (Peter Simmons) never knew his father who was killed in Vietnam; Jackson (Richard T. Jones) was a great pro football prospect before he became injured; Mel (Greg Sporleder) comes from an abusive family and dozes to blank out the pain.

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Even the soldiers who don’t seem touched by grief or anger--like country boy Tommy Lee (Mark Wahlberg, a.k.a. Marky Mark) or the well-read Roosevelt (Khalil Kain) or the jokester Jamaal (Kadeem Hardison)--seem stunted not by lack of aptitude but by lack of opportunity. Donnie (Lillo Brancato Jr.) starts out reading comic books and ends up reciting the “St. Crispin’s Day” speech from “Henry V” to his flabbergasted drill sergeant (well played by Gregory Hines). It’s an inspiring moment, but it would have been funnier--and probably truer to experience--if Donnie, an expert mimic, had recited the speech in his Al Pacino voice from “Scarface.”

The soldiers get fired up about “Hamlet” by relating the play to their own lives--it’s Shakespeare as therapist, as career adviser. The film’s view of education is inspiring but also a bit bogus. It reduces great drama to a catalogue of shibboleths and life lessons. (This is also what the movie does to its own meanings.) And Bill’s transformation is self-serving. He comes to recognize that his former advertising world lacks the “truth” of his new crusade but Burnstein and director Penny Marshall plug the Joy of Learning with slick commercial fervor, as if they were framing an ad campaign.

“Renaissance Man” never really shows us how Bill’s brood might bring him into their culture. Through them he discovers his real calling, but the educational process is mostly one-way-- his way. (The big dance number where the students do a rap version of “Hamlet” is the film’s phoniest scene.) Bill is too busy getting his comeuppance in other ways: as a divorced father whose daughter wants his respect; as a former draft resister who learns, from the company colonel (Cliff Robertson), the true value of the military life.

DeVito is required to plod Bill through a lot of hare-brained paces, like the scene where he enters an endurance test to win the respect of his students. But DeVito is remarkably good in the role anyway; it seems to have touched something genuine in him. He’s toned down his usual bug-eyed squalling, and the result is his best screen work since Barry Levinson’s “Tin Men.”

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It is in Bill’s early scenes, where he stands humiliated before his jobless life, that Penny Marshall’s tact as a director comes through best. It doesn’t come through often enough, though. She’s a graceful, intelligent director who doesn’t appear to have her heart in all the graceless grandstanding in “Renaissance Man.” She doesn’t have the gift for shamelessness, and that’s why the film, with its pileup of sentimentalities, seems so processed. She’s trying to engineer our emotions, but she’s smart enough to know that an artist--not an engineer--is required for the job.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for some language. Times guidelines: It includes references to bloodshed in Vietnam and crack dealing. ‘Renaissance Man’

Danny DeVito: Bill Rago

Gregory Hines: Sgt. Cass

Cliff Robertson: Col. James

James Remar: Capt. Murdoch

An Andrew G. Vajna presentation in association with Touchstone Pictures. Director Penny Marshall. Producers Sara Colleton, Elliot Abbott, Robert Greenhut. Executive producers Penny Marshall, Buzz Feitshans. Screenplay by Jim Burnstein. Cinematographer Adam Greenberg. Editors George Bowers and Battle Davis. Costumes Betsy Heimann. Music Hans Zimmer. Production design Geoffrey Kirkland. Set designer Robert Fechtman. Set decorator Jennifer Williams. Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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