Phil Alden Robinson, who wrote and directed Field of Dreams and Sneakers more than 20 years ago, is back behind the lens after a 12 year hiatus (his last film was The Sum of All Fears) . This time around, he’s helming The Angriest Man in Brooklyn and the question you have to ask yourself is what was it about this film that drew him out of seclusion?
Maybe it was the cast? Led by Robin Williams (in a non-bearded role so the general assumption is this is a comedy) and supported by Peter Dinklage, James Earl Jones and Mila Kunis, a cast like that might have piqued his interest. Williams always has potential, Kunis looks pretty and Dinklage is incredibly hot at the moment. Jones doesn’t really count since Robinson tends to cast him in everything he does, almost like a good luck talisman.
Maybe it was the plot, the story of Henry Altmann, a grumpy man who’s “mistakenly” told he’s got 90 minutes left to live (the fact he’s dying is true, the time frame is not), who then spends that time trying to make amends for the mistakes of the past two years of his life (ever since his older son died). Presumably, the original Israeli film, The 92 Minutes of Mr. Baum, was worthy of an english language remake?
Maybe it was simply the pleasure of filming in Brooklyn?
Whatever the reason Robinson decided to step back behind the camera the next question you must ask is did he actually see the finished product before he allowed it to be released to the general public. My gut reaction to that question is “no.” Unless he secretly took a job with The Asylum, there’s no way an Academy Award Nominated writer would let this piece of drek go out under his name. Nothing about this 83 minute film works (and yes, the film is blissfully shorter than the 90 minutes Williams’ character is given to live) starting with the genre categorization it is listed under. According to IMDb, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn is a comedy and maybe if it had been, it would have worked better. But it’s not. When the funniest moment in the film happens in the last 30 seconds you know something is wrong. And yet if Robinson’s idea of “funny” is pitting the time-challenged Williams against a stuttering James Earl Jones store clerk (something not only not funny, but borderline offensive) then we know squarely where to lay the blame.
Thing is, as a writer, I can’t help but play Monday Morning Story Editor. There are numerous ways this could have actually worked, and been funny and poignant and something we’d all be talking about and recommending instead of assiduously avoiding. But that all starts with Robinson having the wherewithal to stop this thing when he saw it was going off the rails and demanding a rewrite (or doing it himself since, as has been pointed out, he IS an Oscar nominated writer). In general, though, we could have been given characters to care about rather than broad stroke caricatures who are flat and never earn their emotional outrage – and they ALL have emotional outrage (yes, even Jones, in his painful four minutes of screen time, gets off a stuttered “f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-fuck you”).
We could have gotten a more logical premise. Yes, the death of a child is a traumatic and life-changing event and I don’t want to diminish that, but coming when it does, two years prior to the beginning of the film, doesn’t really explain the long-standing hostility of Williams’ familial patriarch to everyone around him, including Dinklage as his yamaka wearing brother (I mention the yamaka only because it makes little sense to have such a stereotyped accoutrement with no logical story reason to back it up – it comes off as an affectation). The primary conflict which needs to be resolved, though, is between father and surviving son and this is where the death seems least involved. Hamish Linklater, who plays the son, is almost 40. Even if the character he’s playing is 15 years younger, he would understand the pain and frustration his father has been going through over the past two years and maybe cut him a little slack. Instead, he comes off as prissy and selfish and really, kind of a prick. In fact, everyone sees the prior two years of Altmann’s grief as his own turmoil which shouldn’t affect their lives at all – and when it does, they become resentful and angry.
As if this weren’t enough to fill the scant time the film has, there’s a whole separate plot involving Kunis as a pill addicted Doctor who is having an affair and then her cat dies and and and and… enough already! There’s simply too much going on here. By the time, about two thirds into the film, we are treated to the kind of coincidence a first year screenwriting student would fail a class for putting into a script, I knew we were done. All that was left was the predictably schmaltzy ending with everyone able to move on with their lives now that the negative reminder of the death of a loved one has, himself, died as well. Ironically, that final scene provides the one honest moment in the script, and it’s a moment when every character is being decidedly fake.
So, while I don’t know what happened to push Robinson into hiding, if this is the kind of film he’s interested in making now, I’m kind of sorry he came out. I’d rather remember him for Sneakers.