Penny Marshall probably won't win the Nobel Prize anytime soon, but the TV-star-turned-director has a minor gift for detective work. After discovering the little boy inside the man (Big) and the ballplayer within the woman (A League of Their Own), Marshall has now unearthed the deep thinker in the dumb army recruit--with mixed results.
In Renaissance Man, Danny DeVito stars as a cynical, unemployed advertising guy who winds up teaching Hamlet to a squad of boot-camp misfits. In the process, of course, he learns even more than they do about nobility, perseverance and esprit de corps. Here's a summer feel-good movie containing more blank verse than you'd hope for and more blank stares than you can count. Marshall tries to push every emotional button she can think of, and some of them work. But she finally bogs down in formula.
DeVito's smart-mouth, little-guy shtick is so well worn by now that he has to keep turning it up a notch every time out to hold our interest. He does it early with wisecracks about the follies of bureaucracy and military jargon he's been thrown into ("I've died and gone to Gomer Pyle's house!").
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Luckily, there's some help. The squad of "Double D's" (service shorthand for "Dumb as Dogshit") assigned to him are appealing in the old variety-pack manner. Richard T. Jones is the ex-football star bitter about the white world discarding him. Peter Simmons struggles in his soldier-daddy's shadow. Greg Sporleder sleeps through everything (an inside joke on Marshall's Awakenings?). Pretty Stacey Dash is trying to make it in a man's world. Khalil Kain's on the lam from his past. Mark Wahlberg (aka "Marky Mark") is the obligatory hillbilly, Lillo Brancato Jr. the familiar wiseass from Brooklyn.
Naturally, these "squeakers" don't know Hamlet from ham 'n' eggs, but for some reason DeVito is their last chance to remain in the army. After what seems like 3,500 hours of classes, they take the Bard's lessons to heart, produce their own rap version of the play and turn around a drill sergeant (Gregory Hines) who doesn't think iambic pentameter has anything to do with basic training.
By graduation day, the Double D's have shaped up mind and body, individualism and teamwork are reconciled and the DeVito character has reclaimed his own sense of self-worth. Nice and neat. Not without purpose, Marshall has also transformed her service comedy into a recruiting film: The Army will absolutely love this thing.
Writer Jim Burnstein says he based the script on his own experience of teaching Shakespeare to soldiers in Michigan. Just one thing, though: Bet the real guys didn't recite the famous St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V on their parade ground.