Barry Levinson claims he spent 12 years nurturing the idea for Toys; it makes you scared to think about the ideas he rejected. Set in a big, pretty toy factory that’s a piece of hermetically surreal Pop art design, Toys isn’t a movie, exactly — it’s a bunch of sets waiting for the characters to show up. The film is a jokey, nattering fiasco, as awful as Hudson Hawk. And yet, like that famous disaster, it never loses its aura of precocious self-satisfaction. Long after the audience has given up on it, Toys seems peculiarly aware — even proud — of how precious and overblown it is. It keeps sputtering in new directions, all noise and color, like a fireworks display that goes off while still in the box.
When the toy factory’s loving founder (Donald O’Connor) dies, a battle for control is waged between his son (Robin Williams), a smiling, angelic innocent, and his brother (Michael Gambon), a hawkish Army officer who wants to create war toys. The plot, what there is of it, suggests an absurdist antimilitary satire left over from the ’60s — it’s microwaved Kurt Vonnegut. For most of the movie, though, we have absolutely no idea what’s going on. Levinson creates a few charming visual conceits (a house that looks like a series of Magritte paintings; Joan Cusack, as Williams’ costume-crazed sister, wearing a pink plastic milkmaid’s wig), but he doesn’t give the audience anything to hold on to. Every character in Toys is a daffy, self-canceling flake. Even Williams has no comic presence; he’s more like an extra who gets to deliver a few lines. By the time the little tanks and dolls declare war on each other, the film’s ”ironic” violence seems nothing more than a symptom of terminal creative narcissism, a grand statement by a filmmaker who has forgotten what, if anything, he had to say. F