Robin’s Wish is a documentary dealing primarily with the final years in the life of Robin Williams, along with a detailed discussion of the effect on him, over time, of the illness which was eventually to claim his life. Commissioned by his widow, Susan, the film does not attempt to act as a biography of the man or the performer. This leads to first question as to exactly what the film is attempting to achieve.
The film begins with archive audio of Robin describing what it is like to be on stage, and creating as he went along. From there we move to present day footage of Susan at home reading the correspondence she has had with the medical profession regarding Robin’s diagnosis of Lewy Body Dementia – a discovery only found at the post-mortem stage. From there we move to a montage of the news reports of his death in August 2014.
As we hear from neighbours and friends about the sense of loss and shock, we get glimpses of the tabloid press speculation of the time: that Robin’s marriage was in trouble, that he had returned to drink and drugs. At this point it becomes clear that this film is more about presenting a portrait of the final years: to ensure that there is no doubt as to what the experience of his final illness was like for those dealing with it – and we are able to see the psychological toll it took on Robin himself.
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Through interviews with noted TV Producer David E Kelley and director Shawn Levy – both of whom worked with Williams on his final projects – we are given a glimpse into his growing struggles with learning his lines, his growing levels of anxiety, and his increasing slowness in improvisation. If there is one consistent line of tragedy running through this film, it is the fact that in life Robin never knew why he was experiencing increasingly severe mental afflictions, such as hallucinations and paranoia, with the initial diagnosis being that of Parkinson’s Disease. All of the testimony is shot through with an air of total frustration for Robin and Susan, as neither of them had any idea why this was happening.
Such testimony is complemented by accounts from medical professionals on the effect of this type of dementia. The hypothesis is that Williams’ high level of intelligence correlated with an ability to mask the worst effect of an illness that was described to his widow as one of the worst and most extensive cases of the disease they had ever seen. This is cross cut with some stories of Robin’s beginnings as an acting student at Julliard in New York, and his move to San Francisco, where stand-up comedy only came about as he found himself unable to get acting work. We learn of his friendship with Christopher Reeve and the effect the death of John Belushi had on his lifestyle choices.
Robin’s Wish is not a work that is concerned with demonstrating his professional abilities. We get very little of Williams the performer (except for some of his voiceover work for Aladdin), meaning that this is not a film that works as any kind of introduction to the professional. It isn’t a life story, as we learn nothing of his previous marriages, his children, or anything else beyond his time in New York; so it not a film to celebrate the work or the life. So that leaves it as an examination of his death.
In this regard it is a deeply affecting work. Susan show great bravery in discussing the painful details of a man slowly fading from her, without knowing why at the time it was happening. Evidently just enough of the real Robin existing in the damaged brain for the man to understand he was no longer himself, and that his behaviour was becoming worryingly irrational. It is very affecting to listen to these stories. The final twenty minutes of the film deal with the day of his death, the aftermath of the press invading their street in Marin County, and the autopsy two months later that finally gave context to what had happened.
Robin’s Wish comes off almost as though it is a rebuttal to any scurrilous rumours about Robin’s demise. In that regard, it is a curious work, as the world now knows that he died of an incurable brain condition, and that drugs, alcohol or depression played no role. So it can play as though it is there to respond to now non-existent rumours. Without the context of the performer or more detail about the man and his life, that could make the film feel a little superfluous and unsure of its target audience. It is saved by being so open, personal and painful, however.
The power of his widow – an addiction survivor herself – having the courage to open up on the most painful time of her life; in order to share with us the final pain of a beloved performer, makes this a very affecting watch. As a portrait of a man and a comedy legend it is lacking, but as a portrait of loss – the worst kind of loss – loss in slow motion, piece-by-piece – this is a terrific, brave and affecting work.