Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), directed by Chris Columbus

mrs doubtfire posterAs a former school principal, I have often met kids whose parents are divorced. When speaking to the parent, I frequently learn that the dysfunction at home is related to possible dysfunction at school. In truth, I am unfamiliar with divorce but I am familiar with the fallout from divorce and its detrimental effect on children. I recall very vividly two parents who articulated clearly their different approaches to their child’s education at the day school of which I was principal. The mother loved the school and chose it in part because of the rabbis who taught there. To her, they were alternate male role models for her son. The husband felt that a Jewish day school was too parochial in its academic program and claustrophobic socially.

Mrs. Doubtfire, at once a hilarious and serious film, deals with the messy fallout of divorce on a family. Daniel Hillard, played by the singular comedian Robin Williams, is a talented voice actor who cannot hold on to a steady job. Moreover, his unpredictable and spontaneous behavior at home creates ongoing chaos in the lives of his wife, Miranda, and their children, Lydia, Chris, and Natalie. The constant tension between husband and wife causes Miranda to ask for a divorce, but Daniel cannot accept the thought of being separated from his children. Furthermore, he unrealistically thinks that the loving relationship he once had with his wife can be restored. Daniel’s hopes are shattered at the first custody hearing when his wife is given full custody of the children with only periodic visits from him.

At this point, the plot thickens. When Miranda seeks to hire a housekeeper, Daniel, in disguise, shows up as Mrs. Doubtfire, an elderly British woman with a sterling resume. In this way, he can see his children regularly and hopefully gain a rapprochement with Miranda. Because of his supreme voiceover talent, he is able to maintain this ruse for a long time, until the schedules of Daniel and Mrs. Doubtfire directly conflict.

While working in the stockroom of a TV station, CEO Robert Lundy observes Daniel playing around with toy dinosaurs, props on a low-rated children’s program. He then invites Daniel to dinner for a job interview. But complications ensue when Mrs. Doubtfire is invited to dinner at the same time and same restaurant by Stuart, Miranda’s handsome suitor, who regards her as one of the family. The challenge Daniel faces is immense: how can he go to both events which require two different identities? A comic scene of epic proportions depicts Daniel’s attempts at changing in and out of the Mrs. Doubtfire costume as he navigates both social and work meetings with his family and with Lundy.

Daniel finally obtains a good job on a children’s TV program using Mrs. Doubtfire as his alter ego. In a coda to Daniel’s own life, Mrs. Doubtfire reads a letter from a child lamenting her parents’ divorce. Now understanding his own situation, he can give advice to others: “Oh, my dear Katie. You know, some parents, when they’re angry, they get along much better when they don’t live together. They don’t fight all the time, and they can become better people. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don’t, dear. Just because they don’t love each other anymore, doesn’t mean that they don’t love you. But if there’s love, dear, those are the ties that bind, and you’ll have a family in your heart, forever. You’re going to be all right.”

This realistic and sobering view of marriage and divorce is echoed by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a contemporary giant of Talmudic learning, who observes that the romantic vision of marriage is a Hollywood invention and vastly overrated. In truth, he suggests, when God makes a match with our destined soulmate, that does not necessarily mean that we will always be happy with the match. It could be that our destined one is supposed to be the one with whom we will produce something worthwhile, such as a child, not that happiness is guaranteed between us and our spouses.

Divorce in Jewish tradition is certainly a tragedy, but with compassion and sensitivity, life can move onward and upward. Mrs. Doubtfire affirms this truth.

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