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In HBO’s doc Come Inside My Mind, Robin Williams bares it all

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Literally and figuratively

Photo: HBO

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review was originally posted after the film’s premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It has been updated to reflect the film’s HBO release.

Viewers can be forgiven for smirking at the seeming double entendre in the title of Marina Zenovich’s HBO documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind. It’s not just that we live in an age of off-color call-and-response, where “That’s what s/he said” and “69? Nice” have become conversational reflexes. It’s just natural to assume that any seeming vulgarity in Williams’ humor is entirely intentional, given how often his routines centered around genitals and their unpredictable behavior. Zenovich’s doc features plenty of footage of Williams onstage, improvising riffs about removing his penis and taking it to a bar so he can engage it in frank conversation, or snaking a hand between Billy Crystal’s legs onstage and pretending his arm is Crystal’s active, talkative cock. The title just seems like one more Robin Williams gag, half joke and half friendly sexual come-on.

But while “come inside my mind” does come directly from a Williams routine seen in Zenovich’s doc, it takes a different direction. In that particular standup bit, drawn from Williams’ 1979 comedy album Reality: What a Concept!, he illustrates the inside of a comedian’s mind after a failed joke. The gag is that he portrays his brain as a kind of organic computer working through subroutines, trying to find a program that will produce a laugh response. But it’s overclocked to the point of insanity, leaving Williams changing gears every second, running around the stage screaming “Mayday, mayday!” and “Not buying the bullshit! Career over!” As an illustration of Williams’ mind, it’s a little frightening, a little sad, and a whole lot funny. It suggests he lived in a manic state of desperation to please, alternating with frantic excitement whenever a piece of comedy business worked. That’s Zenovich’s narrative in a nutshell, as she tries to capture who Robin Williams was, and how his identity defined his comedy and his career.

What’s the genre?

Straight-up biopic, in Behind The Music mode.

What’s it about?

The life of actor and comedian Robin Williams, from childhood to his 2014 suicide.

What’s it really about?

There isn’t a lot of agenda or subtext to Come Inside My Mind. Zenovich and her team of researchers and archivists find some footage of Williams talking seriously about his career on outlets like James Lipton’s Inside the Actors Studio, and they get deeper with some rare home video footage, capturing moments like the baptism of his first child. Zenovich also relies heavily on talking-head interviews with friends, family, and collaborators, who try to explain his life from their perspectives. Billy Crystal, Williams’ Mork & Mindy co-star Pam Dawber, and his first wife, Valerie Velardi, do bring up interesting personal facts. Velardi, for instance, reveals that she and Williams had been amicably separated for a year before he became involved with their former nanny, although the tabloids inevitably recast the situation as a torrid, surreptitious affair. But there’s relatively little here that casual Williams fans won’t already know, and the story takes a familiar shape for a comedian’s biopic, exploring the ups and downs of Williams’ career, his troubles with substance abuse and relationships, and his painful need for approval, stemming in part from a relatively removed and loveless childhood.

Is it good?

Come Inside My Mind is short on new insight or stylistic innovation. It’s a bog-standard biopic doc that alternates old photos and footage of Williams with those inevitable talking-head interviews. It follows the timeline of Williams’ life predictably: early student acting experiences, standup, TV stardom via Mork & Mindy, drug abuse and recovery, more standup, a film career, mental illness and death. But it’s still an immensely satisfying and entertaining watch, because it spends so much time just watching Williams throw all his energy into whatever he does.

Zenovich makes the excellent decision to keep the film clips to a minimum, and instead to focus on harder-to-find footage: Williams goofing around with his Julliard class, improvising at Comedy Relief, or playing to an immense crowd on a USO tour. The film follows some of his stage routines at The Comedy Store or The Met, but his spontaneous bits of business are even funnier. One sequence seems particularly telling. After losing Best Actor at the 2003 Critics’ Choice awards to a tie between the only other nominees, Daniel-Day Lewis and Jack Nicholson, Williams steals the stage. Invited up to the mic to deliver Nicholson’s acceptance speech, Williams launches into a Nicholson impression, then just riffs, with obscene gestures, Irish dancing, and eventually, invective at the judges: “Thanks for nothing! It’s a tie with three people! It’s so nice to have nothing leaving here, I don’t have to thank anybody. You pretty much said ‘Fuck you, Robin!’ Thank you, I hope that’s televised!”

That’s the great joy of Come Inside My Mind: not getting a fundamentally new understanding of Williams, but just watching him react in the moment with a sense of humor that always seemed to come directly from the id. Whether challenged to explain himself, or just given an opportunity to pretend to be Whoopi Goldberg’s talking vagina, he would charge forward fearlessly, vomiting out daring, startling riffs that revealed a little need, a little anger, and a whole lot of manic energy. His humor constantly pushed into freshly outrageous territory, crossing the line of good taste with a big, endearing, irresistible grin. The film glosses over vast segments of his career, zipping from his student years to his superstardom with casual glibness. But it doesn’t matter, because any failure to thoroughly investigate the hows and whys of his career just leaves more time for Williams to express himself on-screen.

Several of the interviewees do tell tremendous stories about him. Dawber discusses how spending time with John Belushi on the night of his fatal overdose scared Williams away from drugs. Velardi explains what Williams was like at home when he was in quiet recharge mode. Williams’ son Zak talks about essentially having an overgrown child for a father, someone who could relate to kids on their own terms. And Crystal reveals what day-to-day friendship with Robin Williams was like; how they traded off creating silly characters for voice messages, how Williams dealt with the trauma of unexpected heart surgery, or his growing depression toward the end of his life.

Come Inside My Mind is weighted down by an inevitable sense of melancholy, because anyone who followed Williams knows how this story ended. But that seems appropriate for a biopic about a star whose entire career was tinged with a slight melancholy. Through the framing interviews, Zenovich captures Williams’ need to please people, the way he hungered for attention and approval, and the way, as one of his directors says, he fed on it.

What should it be rated?

Unquestionably R. Williams’ routines are profane, scatological, and graphic in all the best ways. The film also includes a movie clip of him swimming naked in World’s Greatest Dad. (The film’s director, Bobcat Goldthwait, even expresses astonishment at the size of Williams’ junk: “All this time I thought you were just bowlegged!”)

How can I actually watch it?

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind is now playing on HBO.