Friday, February 23, 2024

Staying Positive: RENAISSANCE MAN

 by Adam Thas

The trailer did me dirty.

In 1994, I had just finished my first year of high school and was just starting to find my way to the movie theater as much as I possibly could. Back then, however, I was a sucker for trailers, TV spots, and star power. Having grown up watching reruns of Taxi and being a fan of movies like Twins, I thought I knew what I was in for with a movie starring Danny DeVito. Add on that Penny Marshall was directing her follow-up to both Big and A League of Their Own, the trailer seemed like it was going to be unapologetic comedy romp. Unfortunately, Renaissance Man is none of that. In fact, I don’t remember laughing once in what was barely a comedy and more resembled a first attempt at Dangerous Minds. So, in honor of 1994 week, I decided to revisit Renaissance Man and find some things to Stay Positive about.
If you’ve never seen Renaissance Man, it stars the previously mentioned Danny DeVito, who plays Bill Rago, a down-on-his-luck advertising executive who, after being laid off, finds a job at a local army base teaching the “Double Ds,” a moniker which means “Dumb as Dogshit” and is given to recruits who may possess the physical attributes to be in the army, but need extra education to meet the army’s minimum requirements. At the time in 1994, Danny DeVito and Gregory Hines get top billing, but Renaissance Man also stars a very young Mark Wahlberg in one of his first acting roles, as well as Stacey Dash, pre-Clueless. The cast in general is fantastic and it was awesome to see where these actors' careers took them viewing it 30 years later. Most fascinating, though, is watching this period in DeVito’s career where at 50 years old he was trying to establish himself as a leading man between this and Jack the Bear, rather than continue as the supporting character he’d spent a majority of his career being. DeVito is fine, and while he tries desperately to carry the movie, he’s just not as good when he’s not being an asshole. DeVito has had a long and successful career playing a very specific type of role, so seeing him in a role where he’s being serious is jarring.
On the first day of class, the students are asked to write about why they joined the army. Normally I wouldn’t be a fan of a “tell not show” approach, but it successfully works as a vehicle to get each of the back stories out. With that out of the way we get to the best part of the movie, where we just enjoy the characters existing in the same place. While I don’t have any inside knowledge, director Penny Marshall made a career of surrounding herself with funny people and letting them be funny. It’s my suspicion that there are several scenes where she let them do just that.

With an ensemble cast, it’s hard to get all of the characters a chance to have a proper story arch or at least grow in a way that satisfies. Unfortunately, Renaissance Man is no different, but at least with one character they pay it off in a way that works. Throughout the movie, Private Davis (Peter Simmons) is teased for how his father wasn’t the hero he imagined but thanks to some prying from his teachers and classmates, he is able to get the answers he wanted by the end of the movie. It’s a good payoff that partially makes up for other characters being left in limbo.
Knowing what to expect from Renaissance Man this time around, I can honestly say I enjoyed it more and was more receptive to it this time around. There are things to like and scenes that work but overall I cannot get past the fact that a movie directed by Penny Marshall and starring Danny DeVito has so little comedy in it. Don’t get me wrong, they try and be funny, but it’s just not funny. There were a lot of good intentions in Renaissance Man. I think DeVito really thought this was going to be the role to cast him into more leads, but it didn’t work out that way. Exiting the theater in 1994, I was visibly angry and felt cheated by the movie not being what the trailer led me to believe. This time around, I got some enjoyment from the movie and was overall indifferent to the entire experience. So I would say that’s a measurable improvement.

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