A formulaic fish-out-of-water comedy, RENAISSANCE MAN matches a resentful, type-A loser with a bunch of lovable screw-ups against the backdrop of this man's army.
Bill Rago (Danny DeVito) is a brilliant but arrogant advertising man whose inflated ego eventually gets him fired and lands him on the unemployment line. To his horror, he finds a job there: he's told he has to take a short-term teaching position at a nearby army base, or his benefits will be
terminated. He's not a military type--pre-dawn reveille nearly gives him a heart attack--and he has nothing but contempt for his class, a cross-section of the worst the volunteer army has to offer. If he can't teach them basic language proficiency, they're all going to be drummed out of the
military; they've already been labeled the dumbest of the dumb, and they're sullen and resentful.
Rago's attitude changes the day they cajole him into reading Shakespeare to them, and the power of great literature wakes up their underused minds. Rago begins to get to know them: Donnie (Lillo Brancato, Jr.) is a street smart kid from Brooklyn who's never read anything more challenging than a
comic book, but blossoms when he's challenged. Miranda (Stacey Dash) is lonely and feels profoundly rejected by her family and society; she sees the army as her last shot. Jamaal (Kadeem Hardison) is quick with the smart remarks, but secretly feels he's looked down upon. Jackson (Richard T. Jones)
coasted through school on a football scholarship, and never had to learn anything. Roosevelt (Khalil Kain) is hiding out from the law. Brian (Peter Simmons) is slow and haunted by the memory of his father, who fought in Vietnam. Tommy Lee (Mark Wahlberg) is determined to use the military to better
himself, and Mel (Greg Sporleder) is an amiable follower with an attention deficit disorder. With Rago's encouragement, they all make tremendous progress, despite the hostility of their training officer Sergeant Cass (Gregory Hines), who thinks they're screw-ups and that Rago is wasting their--and
One by one, the recruits master their fears and live up to their responsibilities, and Rago becomes a kinder and gentler person; he even patches up his relationship with his estranged daughter. He devises an exam for his students, and when he's told by Colonel James (Cliff Robertson) that he
shouldn't give them a test because if they fail it they'll be thrown out of the Army, he gives the class a choice. Would they rather all be allowed to leave the class without a grade, or do they want to challenge themselves? They choose the challenge, and they all pass. Rago, now an army man,
looks forward to taking on a new class.
RENAISSANCE MAN is an exceptionally unoriginal comedy with a heart-tugging streak as big as Fort Bragg, but it succeeds perfectly well on its own unambitious terms. The cast is slick and well-directed, and pint-sized comedian Danny DeVito's trademark brand of frustrated bluster is perfectly
suited to the role of Rago, the vicious flack whose vitriolic tongue defends a heart of pure Jell-O. His transformation into a warm, loving teacher of society's outcasts may not be precisely convincing, but it's smoothly done.
RENAISSANCE MAN has all the right things to say: that we all have to stop and smell the roses, that our family and friends are more important than high-powered jobs, that everyone has talents and the trick is to find them, that the human spirit can flourish under the least promising of
circumstances, and that you can't win if you're not willing to risk failure. This last lesson, of course, is one the film itself ignores; RENAISSANCE MAN plays it safe at every turn. There are no bad kids in Rago's class, and no truly stupid ones. They're all just misunderstood and neglected, and
their miserable lives have miraculously failed to scar them so badly that they can't be reached in a matter of months by the first guy who believes in them. The worst thing that happens to any of Rago's kids is that Roosevelt goes to jail after Rago persuades him to tell all, but his classmates
and new found friends write to him, and he learns to accept responsibility for his actions. We know he'll come out of prison a better man. Thus RENAISSANCE MAN is a film filled with laughs and lessons so easy that they're instantly forgettable. Despite a major promotional effort, the picture
performed disappointingly--a career setback for director Penny Marshall, who had become Hollywood's most bankable woman director on the strength of the smash hits BIG and A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN, as well as the critical success AWAKENINGS. (Profanity.)
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- Released: 1994
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: A formulaic fish-out-of-water comedy, RENAISSANCE MAN matches a resentful, type-A loser with a bunch of lovable screw-ups against the backdrop of this man's army. Bill Rago (Danny DeVito) is a brilliant but arrogant advertising man whose inflated ego ev… (more)