Mark Harris
November 22, 1991 AT 05:00 AM EST

Mark Twain and Me

TV Show
Current Status
In Season
93 minutes
Jason Robards, Talia Shire, Amy Stewart, Brian Paul Stuart
Daniel Petrie
Buena Vista Pictures
Kids and Family, Drama

We gave it a C

Of all the ways to dramatize the genius of Mark Twain, the strangest may be to turn the man into a cuddlesome folk figure — a twinklepuss in a white suit spouting homegrown wisdom. But over the last 20 years, a series of plays and one-man shows have insistently portrayed Twain as an adorable Uncle Remus. Mark Twain and Me, based on the memoir of a girl who knew Samuel Langhorne Clemens when she was 11 and he was a dwindling 72, continues the unhappy metamorphosis.

Wearing what appears to be a huge prosthetic head that renders his features completely immobile, Jason Robards plays Twain with a rasp that’s recognizable even beneath inches of latex. On a voyage from London to the U.S., Twain, whose relationship with his own grown daughter (Talia Shire) is not ideal, befriends Dorothy (newcomer Amy Stewart), a sheltered, bookish girl who reveres his writing. As their friendship develops and she becomes a frequent houseguest, they teach each other TV-movie-ish things — how to stay young at heart, how to dare to take risks, how to grow up.

Now, there are worse things a children’s film can do than make a hero out of a writer and a heroine out of a reader, but Mark Twain and Me isn’t really interested in the love of literature; it’s more about the love of celebrity. Dorothy’s tiny Twain adventure is seen as intrinsically special because of the author’s fame, not his talent. And the script’s frail aphorisms (Twain: ”No matter what happens, you must never lose heart”) are unlikely to send young readers rushing to find a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. As a coming-of-age drama, Mark Twain and Me is sensitive and handsomely made, but any movie that reduces Mark Twain to a plot device has some growing up of its own to do. C

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