When I hear Tom Hanks' affectionate imitation of her, I have an image of Penny Marshall as an indecisive kvetch. When I watch her movies, I realize instead that the director of Big, Awakenings, and A League of Their Own is an aggressive sentimentalist who likes to milk the big emotions inherent in big settings: boyhood in America, a psychiatric hospital, an all-girl baseball team. In Renaissance Man, Marshall joins the U.S. military. By the time the closing credits roll, she has turned boot camp at America's all-volunteer Army into a tender, maturing experience a polite comedy featuring moments of learning, laughing, sharing, and studying Hamlet.
Hamlet signifies here because Danny DeVito plays Bill Rago, a screwup of an ad exec who finds temp employment teaching "comprehension" to a class of allegedly slow-witted recruits. To illustrate that Rago is a dissatisfied iconoclast, he is costumed in loud cabana-wear shirts. To illustrate that TV's Welcome Back, Kotter premise is eternally updateable, the class is composed like an inner-city Dream Team: The cast includes A Bronx Tale's Lillo Brancato Jr. as Donnie Benitez, a former Noo Yawk gang member; White Men Can't Jump's Kadeem Hardison as Jamaal Montgomery, a sassing homeboy; and Calvin Klein's Marky Mark now a formally billed, rather charmingly subdued Mark Wahlberg as Tommy Lee Haywood, a backwoods Southern kid.
The kids are all right, really: They act up at first, but soon the glory of Shakespeare wins them over, and by one of the movie's two emotional climaxes, Benitez stands tall in a nighttime rainstorm quoting from Henry V, which wasn't even a class assignment! But DeVito is so very not all right that director Marshall is, in the end, defeated by his inability to play warm, or complex, or, for that matter, anyone who is not a cartoon. Rago was shown to be a sonuvabitch when he was an adman, and his classroom of sweathogs supposedly humanizes him, but damned if we know why, or how. Or care. This hole where a Gabe Kaplan ought to be leaves Renaissance Man vulnerable to Marshall's excesses. In her zeal to choreograph our emotional responses, she becomes her own kind of drill sergeant, barking out orders: Laugh! Reach for your hankies! At ease! You obey but you may come to resent the regimen. C