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'Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind' review: He remains a mystery

HBO premieres "Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind"

HBO premieres "Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind" Monday night. Credit: HBO

THE DOCUMENTARY "Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind"

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Monday on HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT This film — produced by Marina Zenovich and Alex Gibney and directed by Zenovich — contains dozens of interviews, including those with Billy Crystal, Eric Idle, Whoopi Goldberg, David Letterman, Steve Martin, Pam Dawber and Robin Williams' son, Zak Williams, and covers the comedian's remarkable career from its stand-up beginnings in San Francisco to the movies and vaunted Broadway productions, like "Waiting for Godot."

MY SAY For many of us, Robin Williams' death was one of those rare you-know-where-you-were events. Aug. 11, 2014, was a Monday, and whether on the beach, in traffic or still at work, the news was a thunderbolt. The words "by hanging" seemed to linger like an echo, or nightmare. With much evidence to the contrary, most people still believe in the fiction that public lives are happy lives. Williams' death — like those of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade four years later — did not compute. What happened? Why?

And so, "Come Inside My Mind" arrives on the wings of opportunity, or at least some possible answers. Zenovich, who has produced films on Roman Polanski and Richard Pryor, takes both a sensible and exhaustive approach in pursuit of those. She talks to dozens of friends, family members and colleagues. She's collected so much film — including B-roll, bloopers, home movies, concert footage — that Williams' life turns into a long uninterrupted lark in front of a camera, or hundreds of them. The interviews have a bereft tone, as someone recalls a stray word or incident that would later be freighted with meaning. The battles with addiction, alcohol in particular, become more momentous in hindsight. "He was clean," says Steve Martin, his co-star on "Waiting for Godot." "But it was a very difficult clean."

Finally, Zenovich arrives at the biographical equivalent of a cul-de-sac. Mention is made of Williams' diagnosis of Parkinson's disease, and the post-mortem discovery of Lewy Bodies, a form of dementia that involves changes in thinking, confusion and hallucinations, among other symptoms. It's then left to friend and fellow comedian Bob Goldthwait to offer this medical assessment: "His brain was giving him misinformation."

Nothing wrong with the analysis, but Bobcat? HBO says Zenovich reached out to Williams' widow, Susan Schneider Williams, but she declined to respond. She was the last person to see Williams alive, and also wrote a remarkable essay entitled "The Terrorist Inside My Husband's Brain," which was published in Neurology, a peer-reviewed journal, in 2016. She wrote that his death came "at the end of an intense, confusing and relatively swift persecution at the hand of this disease's symptoms and pathology."

If you believe the supermarket tabloids — and we all do, right? — this essay and other matters sparked a feud between Schneider and Williams' children, who felt it was too intrusive. That could explain Schneider's recusal but doesn't explain why "Come Inside My Mind" chooses to ignore the essay, which it does. If Schneider's right, Williams was at the end stage of a particularly cruel and debilitating illness.

That also might explain the inexplicable. In this portrait, two Williamses emerge: the exuberantly public person, and the intensely private one, who would disappear into long stretches of silence. A generous friend and manically generous performer, Williams wasn't so inclined to share his private thoughts. As a result, friends were left to speculate, or grasp at air. "I was a little concerned because he was very quiet," Crystal says of their last encounter. Or: "Very quiet in real life," says fellow comedian Elayne Boosler. "You wouldn't know from the daytime what he would become at night."

The tragedy of Williams — and enduring heartbreak, really — is that someone who gave so much of himself ultimately disappeared into himself. "Come Inside My Mind" valiantly tries to penetrate the silence but comes up empty. The sound bites are good, the footage better, but Williams remains a cipher. We're left on our own by the end, and left to choose our own answers. Maybe he was, to paraphrase the Lillian Hellman line, another famous guy who could not bear to part with his "brightest hour." Or maybe he was consumed by demons, some he knew, some he didn't.

Either way, the brutal fact of his death still comes down to that one hard word — inexplicable.

BOTTOM LINE While this is the In Memoriam tribute that Williams so richly deserves and fans need, the title is misleading because that mind remains out of reach.

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