The Angriest Man in Brooklyn Review: Snickers in a Twist
When Phil Alden Robinson makes a movie, it’s always a time to rejoice. It’s difficult to pin down the Field of Dreams and Sneakers director’s style, exactly: his approach to directing is typically unobtrusive, focused on selling the wit of his screenplays and whimsy of his actors without calling unnecessary attention to the filmmaking process itself. More than anything, his style could be described as an absence of flaws; the less canny amongst us may be unable to say what exactly he does so right, but they’ll have an even tougher time finding anything that actually went wrong.
It would be a pleasure to say that Robinson’s first film in 12 years, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, is a return to form and an instant classic, but it may in fact be his first proper stumble behind the camera. It’s an emotionally powerful experience but one frequently at odds with its own nature: a high-concept comedy played for high drama, and although I found myself crying openly by the end of his latest tale, I simply didn’t laugh as much as the frenetic pace and anxious, smartly contrived set pieces clearly implied that I should have.
Robin Williams stars as Henry Altmann, a man fueled by loud but mostly impotent rage after the untimely death of his son, and after the failure of his other son (Hamish Linklater) to follow him into the family business. His marriage is loveless, his relationship with his brother strained, and to top it all off he’s just got in a car accident and learned that he has 90 minutes left to live.
90 minutes is a ridiculous number, and it took a ridiculous set-up to come up with it: Dr. Sharon Gill (Mila Kunis) was having a particularly punishing day and fell apart when Henry’s ravings after he heard the bad news about his health pushed her buttons. He flees her office to make the most of the very, very little time he has left – barely believing her but not taking any chances – by frantically reconciling with his family and friends before it’s too late.
But then, it really is too late: 90 minutes isn’t nearly enough time for Henry to actually come to terms with the time limit on his life (real or accidentally fabricated) or to use that information wisely, growing as a person realistically or satisfactorily by anyone’s measure. His efforts to make good are by necessity rushed and goal-oriented, and no one – not even his calm, collected brother Aaron (a great-as-usual Peter Dinklage) – believes that either his condition or his efforts to change are sincere. How could they? He’s barely able to say a word to them before he has to race out the door to his next futile attempt at catharsis.
There’s a manic energy to this premise, the dogged efforts of a particularly screwed individual stymied at every turn, that evokes warm, funny memories of similar screwball stories like Quick Change or the significantly darker After Hours. But Phil Alden Robinson, despite the film’s crisp running time, never ramps up to the pace necessary to sell the gag inherent to Henry’s sad but twistedly comic plight. There’s a Preston Sturges movie in The Angriest Man in Brooklyn somewhere, but Robinson appears to be striving for something more sentimental than wicked, more Capraesque than the sick joke at the heart of this film can fully allow.
But although The Angriest Man in Brooklyn never quite succeeds as a comedy, there’s a truth to its absurdity, a genuine desperation that comes across as Robin Williams – giving an unusually grounded, emotional performance – lives out a scenario that many of us would only entertain hypothetically: living each minute like it could be his last. The cruel notion that it very well could makes his many failures take on an air of intimate sadness; his loved ones, responding for so long to Henry with exhausted frustration, only realize that his plight is real a scant few minutes after it’s too late to make up for lost time. Henry Altmann only has 90 minutes left. His family has to come to terms with the idea that their time with Henry may already be up.
There’s a rarely dramatized but profoundly understandable emotion that The Angriest Man in Brooklyn conveys: the anticipation of regret. Every character involved in this not-quite farce has to confront the possibility that they’ve missed their only chance for forgiveness and reconciliation. It is that notion, particularly when embodied by the increasingly shaky Hamish Linklater, that gives The Angriest Man in Brooklyn a bona fide poignancy, and a worthy reason to forgive its failures to be hilarious. It may be difficult at times to watch a movie only try to be funny, but it’s more rewarding to watch a film that strives for universal tragedy and succeeds this well. That may a difficult thing to watch in its own right, but Robinson’s sympathy for his characters and their conditions makes it seem like a very fair price to pay.