With all the resilience, elasticity and recoil of Robin Williams' career, "Flubber" bounces into theaters today to begin the holiday marketing march.
In remaking 1961's "The Absent Minded Professor," which starred Fred MacMurray as the creator of flying rubber, producer-screenwriter John Hughes and Co. have chosen to change the title to something far more commercially viable than "Disorganized, Middle-Aged Science Teacher." And they've made a few other changes, too. Professor Phillip Brainard (Williams), a kind of Wallace sans Gromit, has been given an airborne computer pal named Weebo (voice of Jodi Benson). Flubber itself has been given an actual personality, somewhere between primordial ooze and Chris Farley. And MacMurray's old jalopy has been replaced by a 1963 T-Bird, which is very nice and able to fly.
Otherwise, this is your basic audience-friendly comedy with a crisis--the imminent closing of Medfield College. And a couple of thugs--Smith and Wesson (Clancy Brown and Ted Levine). And their boss--the college-foreclosing Chester Hoenicker (Raymond J. Barry). There are two love triangles: One among Phillip, Weebo and Sara (Marcia Gay Harden), whom the addle-pated Phillip has left at the altar three times. (What she's doing with him in the first place? Oh, never mind.) And one among Phillip, Sara and Wilson Croft (Christopher McDonald), who wants to steal Phillip's invention and his fiancee and who gets her to wager herself on the results of the big basketball game.
Harden and McDonald are good. Ted Levine is very good (he was the killer in "Silence of the Lambs" and the police chief in "Mad City"). But amid all the Professor Irwin Corey-inspired double-talk about what makes Flubber Flubber, the bigger mystery is what Williams contributes to all this. He's a likable enough personality, but Flubber itself is an uncomfortable reminder of what he used to be--antic, unpredictable and vaguely dangerous. Although there were hints of his dormant comedy talents in "Fathers' Day," in which he got to play the off-kilter half of a comedy team, what he's required to do here is act, often in the most maudlin situations. What this usually amounts to is Williams tightening his upper lip, jutting out his lower and enunciating very carefully, thus indicating emotional distress.
And there's a bit too much emotional distress in "Flubber" and not quite enough of the energetic slapstick that takes place at the big basketball game, which Phillip fixes with Flubber (yes, kids, he's cheating!) or the abuse that Smith and Wesson take via the bowling ball and golf ball that begin bouncing at the beginning of the film and return to Earth periodically with hilarious timing and accuracy. Director Les Mayfield ("Miracle on 34th Street") has his moments, of course, but what ultimately was needed in the case of "Flubber" was a movie with more bounce and less talk.
* MPAA rating: PG, for slapstick action and mild language. Times guidelines: Youngsters shouldn't attempt to duplicate "Home Alone"-style mayhem involving a bowling ball.
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Robin Williams: Professor Phillip Brainard
Marcia Gay Harden: Sara Jean Reynolds
Christopher McDonald: Wilson Croft
Raymond J. Barry: Chester Hoenicker
A Great Oaks production, released by Walt Disney Pictures. Director Les Mayfield. Producers John Hughes, Ricardo Mestres. Executive producer David Nicksay. Screenplay by Hughes, Bill Walsh. Cinematographer Dean Cundey. Editors Harvey Rosenstock, Michael A. Stevenson. Costumes April Ferry. Music Danny Elfman. Production design Andrew McAlpine. Art director James E. Tocci. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.