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Picks and Pans Review: Good Morning, Vietnam

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Robin Williams is loose, expansive, engaged, cruising on autopilot in the comedic stratosphere. He is, in short, his basic brilliant self as an unorthodox military disc jockey in this attempt by director Barry (Tin Men) Levinson to transplant M*A*S*H to Vietnam. Too often, though, the film is only Williams’ shtik, and that’s not enough. The first half of the movie presents Williams’ arrival in Saigon in 1965 and his bombastic debut on an Armed Forces Radio program. He replaces the Mantovani records with Martha and the Vandellas and James Brown. He tells jokes: “What’s the difference between the Cub Scouts and the Army?” “The Cub Scouts don’t have heavy artillery.” He does imitations of Elvis Presley, Walter Cronkite, Ethel Merman. Intercut are scenes of American servicemen—patrolling, training, building fortifications but never fighting. A tension is obviously being created, and it is literally exploded when Williams sees a bar blown up by a Viet Cong bomb. Everything that happens after that depends on the abject naïveté of Williams—who has been portrayed as politically sophisticated and thoroughly hip—and on the credulity of the audience. Williams broadcasts a Richard Nixon press conference that he has reedited, lewdly. He is purposely sent into Viet Cong territory in an unarmed jeep. He is attacked, stranded, rescued. He confronts a Vietnamese who has betrayed his friendship, says a tearful farewell to a Vietnamese girl he has been courting, organizes a softball game for the students of the English class he has been teaching, faces firing from his job. While this is a two-hour movie, it is still much too short to cram in all of these improbable complications, and while Levinson seems to want to reflect the confusion of a relatively intelligent American trying to understand the expanding war, neither Williams’ innocence nor his embitterment rings true. It’s too bad, for Levinson has, as usual, summoned up a fascinating cast. Thai actress Chintara Sukapatana is touching as the Vietnamese girl; Vietnamese refugee Tung Thanh Tran is bright and winning as her brother. While there are too many straw-man military stereotypes, J.T. Walsh is convincingly closed-minded as a career non-com. Levinson also lets Williams go with the Thai and Vietnamese extras who play his English students in what seem spontaneous moments as he teaches them such phrases as, “You piss me off.” The film was written by Mitch Markowitz, a veteran of M*A*S*H, among other TV shows. It is frequently funny and occasionally moving, but it never approaches being the great, large-scale movie that both its subject and Williams’ talent deserve. (R)