Don't count 'Toys' among Barry Levinson's many gifts

December 18, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Barry Levinson has put together such a brilliant career while almost reinventing the grown-up movie with his passionate and intelligent body of work that it gives me no pleasure and even a bit of pain to report my melancholy distaste for "Toys."

This is 38 cents worth of ideas supported by $38 million worth of production. It's not without charm, but its willed infantilism and leaden whimsy grows wearying far before its two-hour running time expires. Moreover, watching Robin Williams and Joan Cusack try to out-baby-goo-goo each other is a spectator sport about as edifying as cricket.

The most impressive thing about the film is its stunning physical production, designed by the renowned Ferdinando Scarfiotti. It's set in a kind of Popsicle-colored land of childhood imagination, where there is no clutter or fretwork and all things are purely

themselves: The skies are blue and the grass green, and a toy factory looks like a factory built out of toys, exactly as a 7-year-old would suspect a toy factory to look.

Indeed, the movie's considerable visual charm carries it for the longest time before you really begin to get irritated at the shallowness of the conceit.

Robin Williams plays Leslie Zevo, heir-apparent to the Zevo Toy Co., a child-man of unsurpassed innocence content to ply his days away trying to determine which ethnic declension of make-believe vomit will be most popular. Hasidic heave? Taco ++ toss? But his dying father (Donald O'Connor) knows that he's not focused enough to run the factory, so instead he turns it over to his brother, a three-star general (played by British actor Michael Gambon) who grows quickly sick of the treacle and whimsy -- who can blame him? -- and wants to launch a line of war toys. The toys soon enough lead him into actual weapons production.

Levinson seems hell-bent on making a parable, on reducing complex moral issues to their purest state, both visually and intellectually, as if he believes he can find truth in the mouths of babes. But did he have to become a babe? He skids past the simple into the simplistic, and the movie's reductions are so banal -- soldiers bad, toys good; war unkind to children and other living things -- that the whole thing feels cloying and front-loaded for easy virtue. It's a living monument to regression.

Its intellectual subtext aside, "Toys" doesn't work particularly well on its own terms. For one thing, there's not a lot of "childhood magic" in the big, empty, cold sets and the grown-ups walking around pretending to be children; the movie lacks any sense of spontaneity or delight. The characters never get beyond their labels and their googily behavior.

Williams, under a blond bouffant and dressed like the Mad Hatter, has never seemed so ridiculous. He's not dangerous anymore, there's no edge: he's been reduced to a baby man, squirmy and sentimentalized.

Worse still, a faint whiff of hypocrisy attends the production. Underneath, if you reduce it even further, it's our old friend, the war movie, in which a feckless youth must "prove" himself in combat.

The film's final stroke is a "battle," though once again infantilized, and Williams, an Audie Murphy in a derby hat, must slither through gunfire like any daring grunt. He finally takes control of an airplane and kamikaze-rams it into a control room so that he can grapple with the evil general who, by the stalest of genre conventions, is ultimately hoisted on his own petard.

Williams' immersion in violence cleanses him; he has put aside childish things and is now capable of running the toy company. War has done him "a world of good," to use the ironic title of an excellent World War II novel.

Let us hope and pray that "Toys" is out of Levinson's system now, that enough proto-flower children and nostalgia-rotten baby boomers are attracted to it so that it makes a modest return on the studio's investment and he remains an A-list director, and that he returns to the things he does so well. That is, tracking the tricky, quirky foibles of the heart of real people.

In other words, B. L., phone home.

'Toys'

Starring Robin Williams and Joan Cusack.

Directed by Barry Levinson.

Released by Twentieth-Century Fox.

Rated PG-13.

... **

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