At the risk of sounding mean-spirited, this documentary about Robin Williams’ final months and the disease that killed him is more Patch Adams than Dead Poets Society. A man of Williams’ prodigious talent – who unfortunately starred in a lot of subpar product – deserves a better tribute than Robin’s Wish.
It’s a bad sign when a documentary about a legendary comedian spends more time discussing his manic hilarity, with mere moments of footage that’s actually funny. However, Robin’s Wish is more interested in establishing what a fundamentally decent, down-to-earth, and generous guy Williams was. Camera time with his wife Susan, comedian friends, and neighbors make this transparently clear. To cite an especially touching example, Williams made 6 trips to Iraq and 5 to Afghanistan with the USO, and his handler recalls how he would converse for 90 minutes with a single downcast soldier.
I’m surely not alone in saying Williams’ suicide in August 2014 struck me harder than most celebrity deaths. Besides its sudden violence, his passing is one of the few generation-crossers, as my kids grew up laughing at his performances in Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire, while I remember his show-stealing guest appearances on Happy Days as Mork from Ork.
Robin’s Wish opens by refreshing our memories of the repugnant media mayhem that followed his shocking demise: satellite trucks outside his Marin County home, as tabloids speculated on addiction relapses, marital discord, and mental illness run amok. His wife Susan Schneider Williams, who guides us through this documentary, brings this sequence to a halt with her owned stunned reception of his autopsy report a month or two later, informing her that Robin’s brain pathology revealed severe, diffuse Lewy Body Dementia (LBD).
From here on, the documentary hops among three parallel tracks, sometimes feeling disjointed in director Tylor Norwood’s hands. Neurologists from facilities like UCSF give us a cursory education on LBD. We watch snippets of Robin’s biography: his brief stint at Julliard, his friendship with Christopher Reeve, his courtship and marriage to Susan. Most substantially, we observe his decline during his final year.
David E. Kelley, the creator of Robin’s final TV series “The Crazy Ones,” describes the alarming frequency with which he forgot his lines, the hand tremor he tried to hide. Shawn Levy, who directed him in the Night at the Museum trilogy, recounts 4 AM phone calls from a panicked actor who felt his performance was falling short, saying “I’m not me anymore.” (Stills from the set of the third film show Robin looking lost and vacant, a sight familiar to anyone who’s worked with sufferers from dementia.)
Naturally, Susan furnishes the most vivid, heartbreaking details. When darkness fell, Robin’s paranoia predictably kicked into high gear. Depending on the night, he might be convinced a close friend was dying, or that Susan was cheating on him. When Susan and Robin moved into separate bedrooms on a doctor’s advice, a bereft Robin asked, “Does this mean we’re separating?”
Retrospectively, Susan recognizes that Robin’s deterioration began in 2012. She and the others interviewed illustrate the near-universal phenomenon of normalizing and rationalizing a dementia victim’s slow mental and physical decline.
I’m grateful for the experts in Robin’s Wish who elucidate the impossibility of separating neurological and psychiatric symptoms in dementia, advocating a blame-free attitude towards sufferers. I wish, however, that the informational component of this film had been more useful. The five W’s and one H of Journalism 101 aren’t even covered: how common is LBD? Are there risk factors for it? And what the heck are Lewy Bodies? (For answers, here’s a good place to start.)
Robin’s Wish is commendable for striving to break the chain of suicide contagion, making clear that Robin didn’t die from untreated depression. So it’s sadly ironic that it presents LBD so bleakly and hopelessly. While it’s true that dementias like LBD, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s don’t yet have cures, there are treatments that can lessen their devastating symptoms, lightening the burden of patients and their loved ones. It pains me to think viewers would come away from this film dissuaded from suicide due to depression, but hopeless about another brain disorder.
(Robin’s Wish is available to rent via major streaming services.)
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )