'Mrs. Doubtfire' Still Stands Up as 90s Hijinks with Some Real Heart
by Tyler Wantuch
November 16, 2012
In 1993, Robin Williams starred with Sally Field in Mrs. Doubtfire, a quirky, heart-warming film about a divorced dad who pretends to be female housekeeper in order to keep seeing his kids. It's the epitome of 1990s hijinks. In a television landscape filled with "Family Matters," "Full House," and "Boy Meets World," it isn't any wonder that one of the top blockbuster films of the time would mimic these shows by combining outlandish shenanigans with intense family drama. Even though the film is chained tightly to its own era, there is a strong heartbeat that allows its message and comedy to slide through time. Read on!
Director Chris Columbus' tale brings more than just nostalgia to today's viewers; there is also a poignant message about divorce, change and growing up. The film discusses the balance of responsibility and love and shows how the two are not easily separated.
Divorce is okay. This is the main message that touched 20 million viewers the first week of Mrs. Doubtfire's release. It may change your living situation, but families filled with love and respect can endure. This is a radical departure from the main viewpoint Hollywood has held for years on the subject: divorce is a temporary, demonic impulse caused by a mid-life crisis. The possessed parent soon realizes his error and tries to win back his family's love. Naturally, true love survives and the parents are reunited by the end.
Mrs. Doubtfire, though, doesn't heed this formula. Not only do the parents stay divorced in the end, but they also give a much better explanation as to why they are divorced. Even more outrageous, Columbus suggests that in some cases divorce is better. In a bitter scene, the mother Miranda tells Mrs. Doubtfire (aka her own ex-husband), "The truth is, I didn't like who I was when I was with him. I would turn into this horrible person. I didn't want my kids growing up with a mother like that. When I'm not with Daniel, I'm better. And… I'm sure he's better when he's not with me."
It is clear the mother is not having a midlife crisis or even a desire to be with a sexy co-worker. Rather, we have a person making a logical and sound decision to divorce. Columbus is not trying to be radical; he is attempting to remind people that parents are people too. They are people that have wants and desires and make mistakes - which Daniel makes all too frequently. In the modern culture of the 1990s, a mother's existence is not only to care for the family and serve the husband; she has now become a three-dimensional human being. The modern mother can have it all: personal happiness with a family life.
In a film with Robin Williams, it is hard to think of anyone else getting any attention. Yet in Mrs. Doubtfire, Miranda is the one we should be watching in order to learn how to respect and be honest with ourselves. Daniel struggles as a father and an adult. He frequently misinterprets grand romantic acts of love as equal to being a responsible and loving parent. He loses his job, his wife, and his children because he does not see the bigger issues at hand. He even jokes with Miranda in a fight, "Well, we'll move. That way our problems won't follow us." He isn't interested in being self-reflective or solving any problems; instead Daniel believes his big heart will win the day.
Miranda on the other hand is constantly concerned about her children, her work, and even how to act properly as a divorcee. She is constantly asking Mrs. Doubtfire for advice on to how to make things better. Her relationship with Stu (Pierce Brosnan), a business friend, blossoms at an unexpected rate which makes her happy, while at the same time making Daniel's blood boil. Again, Daniel acts childish by insulting Stu at every opportunity. He throws fruit at him, and even poisons him (well, he's allergice to pepper, which Daniel puts on his shrimp in a climactic dinner). Miranda, meanwhile, maintains a deep concern for the timing of her new relationship and whether or not Stu will fit in with the new dynamics.
Columbus has given us two options: Miranda — an honest, modern look at what it means to be a responsible adult; or Daniel — a deceitful, bitter, and overall pitiful man for most of the film. His hijinks, although entertaining, are all part of a slow, painful journey of Daniel's realization that no grand gesture will win back his wife and family. The more Daniel fights, the worse it gets, until the point that he is unmasked and loses everything. Only then, when he is separated from his family and takes time to mourn his loss, can he be allowed back into the family.
Now this is all very serious for a film that showcases a man in pantyhose and fake teeth. But let us not forget that cross-dressing brings up some very gender-bending ideas. In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman learns about objectifying women. And in The Birdcage we learn that motherhood is an emotional state and does not need to be connected to gender. Daniel, too, learns about responsibility in his old woman duds, even having to deal with some of the stereotypical "perils" of being a woman. I'm talking to you creepy bus driver. Daniel seemingly needs to become closer to Miranda physically in order to gain some of her mental characteristics. As a woman, Daniel is strict, loving, and caring. From a different lens, we may even see this as a complete gender switch. Miranda works late nights with beautiful Stu, while Daniel is at home cooking a gourmet meal for her arrival.
Columbus does not want to draw this comparison too deep because this short-lived balance is false. The compromise that allows the children to have both their father and mother in their lives is based on deceit, not growth. The family needs to have Daniel and Miranda working together as a team but not in a dishonest fashion. In other words, the hijinks, used by all those pesky kids in sitcoms, must fail so that Mrs. Doubtfire can create its main point. Divorce is okay. It isn't easy, but if there is love any family can survive it - even if that means the parents don't get back together. After the lies have been found out and time has healed nearly all wounds, Miranda rescinds her decision and allows Daniel back into the family. Not as a husband, but as an equal and responsible adult.
The reason this film continues to resonate with us is that the humor and physical comedy of Robin Williams is the perfect distraction for this progressive moral tale. But just like Danny Tanner would sit down at the end of each "Full House" episode to teach the viewers a lesson, Mrs. Doubtfire will finish with an ending monologue that possesses more power than the ABC sitcom could ever dream of. We may not watch movies for the lectures, but instead for the story and characters. Inevitably though, each tiny lesson will be learned and held in the recesses of our mind. Divorce is okay and sometimes love is shown through discipline. These are not what you instantly recall about Mrs. Doubtfire, but those lessons are in there. It is same formula used by all those cheesy sitcoms, and it is as effective today as in the 1990s because it works.