Like fellow Oscar nominee Dan Aykroyd in Driving Miss Daisy, Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society is out to prove that he's more than a mike-hogging funnyman he's an artist sacrificing the spotlight in the service of a thoughtful, low-key, deeply moral drama. And he is convincing as John Keating, a teacher who urges prep-school kids to let passion and poetry save them from the cold ambition of their elders.
But Dead Poets Society is a curiously muted movie. Its labored Mister Chips rip-off of a script did not deserve an Oscar nomination, and while Peter Weir's lyrical direction is lovely, it lacks the intense emotions that electrify his Witness and Picnic at Hanging Rock. This time, no mysteries lurk in the picturesque mist.
Williams' work is fine, but you can feel him holding back his natural shtick. The movie's sole moment of glory occurs when he lets go, regaling his class with impressions of Brando in Julius Caesar and John Wayne playing Macbeth. While advocating liberation, exhorting everyone else to voice what he calls ''the barbaric yawp,'' Williams suppresses his true genius. By toning down his own barbaric yawp, his performance refutts its alleged message.
Dead Poets Society is gorgeously made and quite entertaining, but if Hollywood were a stern meritocracy like a traditional prep school, this small movie would not have earned $95 million and four Oscar nominations. In an era when kids think Socrates was an Indian chief and ethics are for suckers, Dead Poets hit big by soothing us with the fantasy that the old order is alive and well. B