We gave it a C
Of all the ways to dramatize the genius of Mark Twain, the strangest may be to turn the man into a cuddlesome folk figure — a twinklepuss in a white suit spouting homegrown wisdom. But over the last 20 years, a series of plays and one-man shows have insistently portrayed Twain as an adorable Uncle Remus. Mark Twain and Me, based on the memoir of a girl who knew Samuel Langhorne Clemens when she was 11 and he was a dwindling 72, continues the unhappy metamorphosis.
Wearing what appears to be a huge prosthetic head that renders his features completely immobile, Jason Robards plays Twain with a rasp that’s recognizable even beneath inches of latex. On a voyage from London to the U.S., Twain, whose relationship with his own grown daughter (Talia Shire) is not ideal, befriends Dorothy (newcomer Amy Stewart), a sheltered, bookish girl who reveres his writing. As their friendship develops and she becomes a frequent houseguest, they teach each other TV-movie-ish things — how to stay young at heart, how to dare to take risks, how to grow up.
Now, there are worse things a children’s film can do than make a hero out of a writer and a heroine out of a reader, but Mark Twain and Me isn’t really interested in the love of literature; it’s more about the love of celebrity. Dorothy’s tiny Twain adventure is seen as intrinsically special because of the author’s fame, not his talent. And the script’s frail aphorisms (Twain: ”No matter what happens, you must never lose heart”) are unlikely to send young readers rushing to find a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. As a coming-of-age drama, Mark Twain and Me is sensitive and handsomely made, but any movie that reduces Mark Twain to a plot device has some growing up of its own to do. C