The public had a difficult time digesting Robin Williams’ death in 2014.
The official cause of death, suicide, didn’t square with the madcap genius we howled over for decades. The true story is more complex, and maddening, something “Robin’s Wish” paints with loving strokes.
The documentary is brief and narrowly focused. We get only glimpses of Williams’ rise to fame. Instead, we meet his neighbors, long-time friends and the woman who nurtured him through what appeared to be more than a year of personal hell.
The story begins with Susan Schneider Williams, the comedian’s third wife. She recalls how Williams’ mental and physical health began to decline, symptoms that aped a number of potential causes.
Depression? Anxiety? Parkinson’s disease?
The answers remained at arm’s length, leaving Williams to soldier on with a diminished skill set. He didn’t know he suffered from Lewy Body dementia or LBD, an aggressive and deadly form of mental decline. His brain circuitry kept misfiring, causing confusion, hand tremors and other frightening symptoms.
The disease is notoriously tricky to diagnose, and even Williams’ doctors couldn’t pin it down for him.
That left him emotionally vulnerable on movie and TV sets, struggling to remember basic lines. His co-stars waited patiently for his signature genius to emerge. It always did, but not without effort.
And it showed.
Williams’ fans may know some of the stories shared here, like his enduring bond with fellow star Christopher Reeve or how he routinely performed for American military members. It’s his time bonding with wounded soldiers, though, which gives “Robin’s Wish” its most Kleenex clutching sequence.
What’s fascinating, and encouraging, is how the legend’s peers not only supported him but didn’t share his decline with a ravenous press. It’s shocking that Hollywood kept the Harvey Weinstein story a secret. Here? Williams’ colleagues noticed his on-and-off set stumbles but kept them an industry secret.
It’s impossible to tell “Robin’s Wish” without sharing his widow’s story, too. Seeing the inside of their home, and adorable photos of Williams mugging it up with the couple’s pug, shows another side of the comic mastermind. Still, the focus on their relationship, from the courtship to the wedding, seems less necessary than other aspects of the comic’s life.
“Robin’s Wish” doubles as a treatise on a condition affecting more than one million Americans. There’s always another lump in your throat moment to interrupt the medical jargon and, more importantly, remind us why Williams still matters to fans worldwide.
The comedian’s death left many questions unanswered. The media filled that void with guesswork, some of it eroding his legacy in the process. “Robin’s Wish” does more than explain his tragic fate. It reminds us that some stars shine brightly for the right reasons.
HiT or Miss: “Robin’s Wish” may feel incomplete at times, but its ability to bring back Robin Williams’ inimitable gifts, and heart, make it well worth a look.