"I take orders from the Octoboss."

Renaissance Man

June 3rd, 1994

RENAISSANCE MAN is a really-not-that-bad inspirational teacher movie directed by Penny Marshall (A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN) and written by Jim Burnstein (a rookie who later did D3: THE MIGHTY DUCKS). It’s corny in the usual ways but also benefits from the simple appeal of the formula and a more-subtle-than-usual performance by Danny DeVito (ROMANCING THE STONE, THE JEWEL OF THE NILE, BATMAN RETURNS).

He plays Bill Rago, a fuck up in the world of advertising who gets fired after missing an important meeting with out-of-town VIPs. Ed Begley Jr. (last seen two weeks ago in EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES) appears briefly as his friend Jack who hired him and still cares about him but has run out of jobs for him. While defending him to the boss Jack says “the man’s had a few personal setbacks the last couple years,” and we can infer that one of them is a divorce, but I like that they never elaborate. Maybe it was some weird shit too. We don’t know.

He’s totally broke, but can’t even admit it to his daughter Emily (Alanna Ubach, SISTER ACT 2: BACK IN THE HABIT), who’s crushed he won’t pay for her astronomy club trip to Mexico to see an eclipse. So he starts collecting unemployment and the clerk (Jenifer Lewis, SISTER ACT, THE METEOR MAN) sort of does a microcosmic preview of his character arc by being a jerk to him at first but then warming to him and encouraging him to take a six week job teaching at an army base.

James Remar (BAND OF THE HAND) plays Captain Tom Murdoch, who brings Bill through the base to his miserable quarters and gets him started. It’s kind of cool to see Remar playing a friendly guy – I didn’t expect that. On the other hand I assumed drill instructor Sergeant First Class Cass (Gregory Hines, A RAGE IN HARLEM), would be the guy who sees something in him and encourages him, but he turns out to be an antagonist who thinks all this fancy book learnin’ is getting in the way of real soldierin’. It’s kind of funny how Bill just doesn’t give a shit about military protocol at all and openly flips him shit in the middle of drills and stuff. It’s all set up for Bill to have to climb up a difficult training tower (long story).

His assignment is to teach basic literacy to a class of eight soldiers, who say they’ve been labelled “double-D,” as in “dumb as dog shit.” They all march in but when they realize he’s a civilian they start fuckin around. There’s loud mouth Private Jamaal Montgomery (Kadeem Hardison, GUNMEN), who’s always insulting Georgia hick Private Tommy Lee Haywood (rapper Mark Wahlberg in his big screen debut). Corporal Jackson Leroy (Richard T. Jones, “Gangbanger #2,” M.A.N.T.I.S.) is a once promising football player who breaks them up. Private Donnie Benitez (Lillo Brancato, Jr., A BRONX TALE) is a blabbering New York dude who never shuts up about New York and does Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro impersonations – he’s an endearing kind of stupid. Private Brian Davis, Jr. (Peter Simmons, I’ll Fly Away) is a nerd who the others mercilessly taunt for talking too much about his dad who died in Vietnam. Private Miranda Myers (Stacey Dash, MO’ MONEY) is the only woman in the class, who has a sad family backstory and a good balance of more reasonable than the others but still kinda dumb. Private Melvin Melvin (Greg Sporleder, “Burger Stand Customer,” TRUE ROMANCE) is known for falling asleep all the time. And Private Roosevelt “Nathaniel” Hobbs (Khalil Kain, JUICE) is from Detroit but when Bill tries to bond by asking him what part he says, “The part you drive through going 85.”

Bill is very open about not knowing what he’s doing and not wanting to be there, so at first it’s basically study hall. But one day they’re having reading time, they ask about what he’s reading, and it’s Hamlet. He doesn’t really want to get into it but they show a surprising amount of curiosity as he tries to explain what it’s about in terms they understand. And he’s a nerd for this shit so pretty soon the class turns into going slowly through the play and trying to understand it all.

It’s got some of the hokiness that implies, but not as much as I expected. There are far-fetched touches like that none of them seem to have heard of Shakespeare before, or some of the ways they relate the plot to their Streetwise Urban Living or whatever. But in the scene where he brings them on a field trip to Canada to watch a production of Henry V (on a set that reminded me of the opera in HIGHLANDER II) the looks on their faces really sell that they’ve become invested in understanding Shakespeare. I like afterwards when Donnie says he liked it except for their accents.

By the way, they used a real production directed by Des McAnuff, veteran American-Canadian stage director who also directed THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE. For the record.

So many of these summer ’94 movies are looking back at past decades – adapting shows from the ‘60s, or being set in the ‘70s, for example. The small way RENAISSANCE MAN does it is that when pressed Bill admits protesting the Vietnam War, and seems very proud of it. Later one of the nicest things he does for a student is going out of his way to find proof that Brian’s dad’s death was heroic. I hope the implication isn’t supposed to be that being anti-war was anti-soldier and doing this means he’s now grown. But if I don’t worry about that it works.

There are a couple odd turns in the plot. One is when Private Hobbs is discovered to be a fugitive drug dealer hiding out in the base under an assumed identity! But it’s nice that Bill doesn’t turn on him. The weirdest leap is when he’s pretending to be CID to get access to Private Davis Sr.’s files, and Staff Sergeant Marie Leighton (Isabella Hoffmann, TRIPWIRE) calls him out and won’t give them to him but abruptly smiles like she’s charmed by him, and next thing you know they go to Burger King together and consider it a date. I don’t know how it works – he doesn’t even have cowboy powers like Woody Harrelson in THE COWBOY WAY.

Anyway, it’s mostly what you expect – an arc from prickly wiseass who’s tortured by being here to creating relationships and becoming invested in teaching. One of the big moments is when he’s told not to have a final exam because he’d have to kick them out of the army if they failed, and he’s upset because he thinks knowing they passed a real test would help them believe in themselves. From cynical grump to passionate idealist – a classic tale. What makes it kind of work is that there are relatively few scenes where he’s just doing jokes, and when there are I wondered if they added those out of fear (especially when there’s an ADR joke). Most of the time DeVito treats it as a serious acting role, and is willing to be much more subdued than how we usually see him. Much of the character is the sadness and empathy in his eyes as he listens to the students, and then the way they begin to light up as he starts to find purpose with them.

There’s plenty of production value in the Detroit opening and the amount of army extras training on the base, but a pretty high percentage of the movie takes place in this small classroom, and is just about conversations between Bill and the students. They’re broad characters but not quite as much as in some movies like this (it helps that they’re not playing teenagers), so having that much time to develop their relationships it’s hard not to get a little bit wrapped up in it. I didn’t mind it.

Most critics did mind it, though, and most civilians didn’t go see it – it was considered a big flop. In my mind the one famous thing about RENAISSANCE MAN was that Disney believed in it so much they wanted to give it a second chance and re-released it in the fall under the new title BY THE BOOK. But I’ve mentioned this to people who had no idea what I was talking about and it turns out it’s because that was something they tested out on 17 screens here in the Seattle area and then they gave up. Seattle in 1994 – home of LITTLE BUDDHA and BY THE BOOK (title only).

So in actuality the one thing RENAISSANCE MAN is famous for is being the big screen acting debut of boy band brother turned pop rapper turned underwear model Mark Wahlberg, who had only done the 1993 TV movie THE SUBSTITUTE. He was good enough in this to get a part in THE BASKETBALL DIARIES, which I think helped him be taken seriously before his followup in the more mainstream FEAR got him some real attention as an actor.

His character is a little less central than he would’ve been starting a year or two later. It’s a pretty simple character, he doesn’t try to push a southern accent or anything, he’s pretty natural, never does anything too embarrassing. There’s a scene where the class surprises Bill by performing a rap about Hamlet, and I was surprised he stayed on the sidelines. Everyone else either participates or dances, but he’s sitting down, mostly out of the shot, hitting out a beat on his desk.

I wondered if it killed him not to get to rap, but then I saw on the credits that he actually wrote “Hamlet Rap” with Mervyn Warren. There are also three songs on the soundtrack by “PRINCE ITAL JOE FEAT and MARKY MARK” (which I believe is a mistake, should be Prince Ital Joe featuring Marky Mark). I’m not trying to mock Wahlberg, but easily the biggest laugh in the movie is when you hear him earnestly rapping “statistics show / that kids with no dough / ain’t got no chance got nowhere to go” during a dramatic scene.

Dash of course did her most famous role in CLUELESS right after this. I didn’t recognize Simmons, but apparently he was in BEST OF THE BEST 3: NO TURNING BACK, so he’s a legend. I know Brancato from ‘R XMAS, but I guess most people know him from The Sopranos. Unfortunately he got addicted to cocaine and heroin around this time and in 2005 he was busted for a burglary that turned into a gunfight that killed an off duty police officer. He was found not guilty of murder but did four years in Riker’s Island. He’s now reportedly sober and acting again.

He’s a standout in this movie, and the one who gets to pierce through the crusty exterior of the mean drill sergeant in the big scene where he responds to his taunting about Shakespeare by pulling out an impassioned monologue nobody knew he had in him. And Brancato got to continue his cinematic military career, because his next movie was CRIMSON TIDE.

RENAISSANCE MAN a.k.a. BY THE BOOK was also released in other countries as MR. BILL, ARMY INTELLIGENCE or OPERATION SHAKESPEARE. I know the two American titles are spoken in the movie, it would be cool if they fit them all in there.

‘90s shit: RENAISSANCE MAN opens with Us3’s 1992 hit “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia),” which could also be heard in SUPER MARIO BROS., JIMMY HOLLYWOOD and episodes of Baywatch and New York Undercover.

They jokingly sing “Achy Breaky Heart,” the song made popular by Billy Ray Cyrus in 1992.

Look at the unit on that guy!

Note: I also tried to watch THE PRINCESS AND THE GOBLIN, a 1991 animated musical from Wales that was unsuccessfully released in the U.S. against THE COWBOY WAY and RENAISSANCE MAN. The arguably notable thing about it besides its nationality is that the drawing style isn’t copying Disney, and there are some gremliny goblin guys with their nipples exposed. But after almost a half hour it had not passed my “it’s okay if it’s not good as long as it’s interesting in some way” test, and I also wasn’t enjoying looking at it, so I moved on with my life.

The only June 3rd, 1994 release I did see in theaters at the time was Rusty Cundieff’s hip hop mockumentary FEAR OF A BLACK HAT, which I reviewed in 2015.

This entry was posted on Thursday, June 6th, 2024 at 12:25 pm and is filed under Reviews, Drama. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

23 Responses to “Renaissance Man”

  1. This one was released as MR BILL in Germany, which I guess was possible because we didn’t have SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE here.

    I know that LIFE IN THE STREETS song, but didn’t know it was on the soundtrack. Prince Ital Joe and Marky Mark made a whole album together, which was only released in Europe and actually was a big deal over here. It spawned one #1 single (UNITED) another Top 10 single (HAPPY PEOPLE) and two top 20 singles (This and BABYLON). Oddly enough neither before or after anybody had heard of Prince Ital Joe or Prince Ital Joe Featuring, so I don’t know the specifics of how this collaboration came together. It was produced by Alex Christensen though, a still quite successful German pop and dance producer, probably best known for his project U96, which obviously took its name from the submarine from DAS BOOT, because yes, the first single was a remix of the theme, which has the distinction of being the first Techno track that landed on #1 in the German single charts.

    So yes, I guess my tangent about a partly related music album means that Europeans (or at least Germans) cared as much (or even less) about this movie than Americans.

  2. Stacey Dash! There’s a name that… has had some associations…!

    How cruel that someone at Disney had the idea to give this movie a second life, and then someone sabotaged that by giving it the title “By The Book”. Might as well call it, “Please don’t watch this.”

  3. CJ, I hope you know how much I appreciate these German music reports. And the best part is I never know when to expect them. Definitely would not have guessed that Prince Ital Joe Feat Marky Mark was a phenomenon somewhere in the world.

  4. Glad to hear that my ramblings aren’t wasted. (But honestly, if they were, I wouldn’t stop, because it’s just how I roll.)

  5. This one hits all my schmaltz buttons. I can’t accurately gauge if it’s actually good or total crap because when that kid recites what I’m pretty sure is the Saint Crispin’s day speech in the rain defying a bully trying to make him look dumb, that’s it, it’s got me.

  6. I had absolutely zero memory of this movie ever existing till I scrolled down and saw that poster of Devito standing infront of all the soldiers and got hit by like a huge wave of memories of renting this out from civic video (Think of blockbuster but Australian and dodgier) and like watching it three times in a week and really loving it when I was about 8 or 9. I think I was just at a stage where I’d watch anything with Danny Devito in honestly.

  7. Franchise Fred

    June 6th, 2024 at 4:15 pm

    Have not seen this since it came out but this review makes it sound like a “they don’t make em like this anymore” programmer worthy of a revisit.

    You got to see Fear of a Black Hat in theaters? Jealous!

  8. I have not seen this since the theater, but I do recall liking it overall, and was shocked at how poorly it was received. Glad to see I might not have been way off. I need to give it another watch one of these days. It’s wild how meh the Summer of 1994 started off, and I’m honestly not sure, with a few exceptions, that it gets much better.

  9. I love this Summer of 94 retrospective as I was a university student in Belgium back then (yes, I am that old) and I used to see absolutely everything in cinema at the time… So I did see Renaissance Man (Operation Shakespeare as it was in French speaking Belgium) – although normally I was not fond of that type of “feel good” movie back then. But I remember enjoying it for what it was, and also remember that the big thing was that it had Mark Wahlberg in it. Back then, movies were not always released at the same time as in the US – so it came out in September which is maybe a better fit for that type of movie. I also remember that it was a first flop for Penny Marshall after Big, Awakenings and A League on their Own…

    And thanks Vern for reminding me about the US3’s Cantaloop song… such a classic 90’s vibe!

  10. grimgrinningchris

    June 7th, 2024 at 3:11 am

    I’ve never seem this despite loving Devito. Likely fearing it was all the things Vern feared but apparently it wasn’t those things, so now I’m interested.

    This just made me think of an Oscars (I think) joke shortly before this one by whichever host (let’s assume Billy Crystal) just after A Few Good Men, A League Of Their Own and Far And Away – “who would’ve ever thought that the biggest directors in Hollywood would be Meathead, Laverne and Opie???”

  11. If you aren’t convinced that we’ve backslid as a culture, just remember that there was a time not so long ago when Danny DeVito could open a picture.

  12. The Lorax.

  13. They should remake this as an episode of Always Sunny.

  14. grimgrinningchris

    June 7th, 2024 at 4:59 pm


    There was a time that Elliot Gould or Sondra Locke could open a picture.

  15. Pacman2.0 aka By The Chomp

    June 8th, 2024 at 1:05 am




    …is fairly well known here, at least with people around my age. But surprisingly I’ve never seen it. I’m glad to know that well endowed character is the one voiced by Rik Mayall though. I’d like to think he insisted on it.

    Somewhat more surprisingly I did see RENAISSANCE MAN when it was still somewhat current and around the age many of my fellow countrymen were becoming GOBLINheads (9). I don’t know why my grandparents, who could be quite protective about what I watched, wanted me to watch this film which must have largely gone over my head and was probably somewhat inappropriate, but they did. I remember enjoying it quite a bit, but I was becoming somewhat fascinated with the wider world of film and probably would have enjoyed just about any “adult film”. I think I’ve seen it once since, but even that would have been in my early teens.

    (I also recall watching Devito’s somewhat obscure directorial debut THE RATINGS GAME, an early Showtime movie, around this time. We were a Devito family I guess)

    I guess I’ll have to revisit this just to see if I’m justified in slightly wincing at the description of the part where Devito just happens to be reading HAMLET. We all have certain tropes that bother us, and for me, for whatever reason, it’s when films act as if plays are books. For me the dumbest part of BEAUTY & THE BEAST 2017 was Belle, this great bibliophile, saying her favourite book is ROMEO & JULIET, a script. I guess I shouldn’t be so judgemental, it was the 18th Century, she couldn’t rent a VHS if she wanted her ROMEO fix, but it just rings so false to me. Similarly, I could certainly buy someone like Devito’s character loving HAMLET, but just casually reading the script? Doesn’t sit right with me.

    The BY THE BOOK thing is interesting, I wonder what it was that made Disney think this mostly panned film was a sure-fire thing that deserved a second chance, or at least a test of one? Sony was the laughing stock of the world for re-upping MORBIUS’s theatre count in response to memes, and with good cause, but only a few weeks later the Gentleminions thing helped RISE OF GRU to an opening well over $100million, so you can see how the theory could have at least panned out. The Cinemascore for BOOK MAN was A-, pretty good but not suggesting a potential phenomenon being overlooked, especially as that was a group that was a) famously generous, and b) had already seen the film, on opening night no less. And while this wasn’t a hit, it had already made a little over $20million and spent a month in the Top 10, so it doesn’t seem like it was so low profile that you could just pretend it hadn’t already come out. I guess it’s cool that they at least gave it a little try. I suppose the “BY THE BOOK version” is technically lost media.

    Changing the title of a film feels like something they wouldn’t try in the Internet age, but I suppose they kind of did with BIRDS OF PREY, and whatever that Tom Cruise/Emily Blunt film that we’re all supposed to get on our knees and beg forgiveness for not making a huge hit but is actually just OK is called now. (I guess kinda/sorta with that last MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE too)

    Back to PRINCESS AND THE GOBLIN, one of the more memorable things about that was that the film poster had quotes from the *children* of well known critics, reckoning that critics were pretty harsh on non-Disney animation at the time. One of those things where maybe neither party was really wrong.

  16. Pacman2.0 aka By The Chomp

    June 8th, 2024 at 1:10 am

    Uh, I meant “adult” film, not “adult film”. I don’t think this qualifies as the later under any name.

    Bonus very 90s trivia about Devito; he was a great Laserdisc enthusiast.

  17. Da kidz today use “mid” as slang for mediocre, unmemorable or middle-of-the-road, and my memory of the 1990s is that people complained about Hollywood movies being that way far too often, hence why independent cinema was received so enthusiastically by so many at the time.

    Nowadays it seems like people are starting to feel the opposite, that mid-budget dramas and/or comedies with a B+ or A- celebrity were the backbone of the industry and that the disappearance of that middle class in favor of all-or-nothing big IP blockbusters is a major reason why Hollywood is struggling right now.

    I understand that logic on an economic level. But on an artistic level I have to somewhat challenge the idea of “yeah that was okay I guess” being the good old days we need to get back to.

    My apologies to Majestyk or anyone else who finds the A24 aesthetic displeasing. But I can’t help noticing that the indie/arthouse studios and distributors like A24, Neon, Focus Features etc. are conveniently absent from most rants (usually from older folks) about how Hollywood has abandoned serious dramas for adults.

    The people who talk that way want to sound like they are highbrow sophisticates. But what they actually seem to be pining for is comforting mediocrity. Movies like THE LIGHTHOUSE or BEAU IS AFRAID or ASTEROID CITY may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but they are not playing it safe. They are swinging for the fences, as we say in America. They are striving for excellence.

    Maybe that’s a generational blind spot for film buffs over the age of 50 or so, since the audience for this newer wave of indie-adjacent cinema seems to skew millennial or younger. But I remember that in the 1990s, film buffs really wanted to see more edgy and challenging films, not feel-good programmers that might as well be TV movies.

    The mid-budget movies get made for Netflix now. It requires – and maybe should require – a movie to have some kind of novelty or importance, and to feel like an event, for a movie to be worth seeing in the theater.

    Or maybe that edgy aging-Gen-X attitude is what got Hollywood into this mess in the first place, by making every movie either a nerd IP blockbuster or an arthouse hipster film, with nothing for the suburban bourgeoisie who just want something inoffensive and reassuring and normal that they can go see as a family.

  18. BTW, all due respect to Renaissance Man, I didn’t know where to put this, but I just got back from the Exhumed Films’ Ex-Fest in Phoenixville, PA, the second best movie event of the year (first is the 24 Hour Horrorthon, also presented by Exhumed Films, coming this and every October).
    They show older films, ORIGINAL PRINTS, and they never tell you what they’re showing in advance. Usually a mixture of old favorites and obscure oddities from the 70’s, 80’s and sometimes 90’s. EX-FEST involves no horror, but it’s all exploitation films, running 12+ hours straight. This year they showed:
    -Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (great, scratchy print)
    -The Thursday Morning Murders (long lost 70’s mob movie passion project by this writer-director-producer-actor-wig impresario who looked like a mixture of Andy Richter and John C. Reilly)
    -Golan And Globus Presents… Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance (this movie is wonkers bonkers!)
    -Joe Dante and Allan Arkush’s sexploitation satire Hollywood Boulevard
    -Execution Squad (Grimy poliziotteschi)
    -Aloha, Bobby And Rose (Paul Le Mat in a teens-on-the-run romance, lots of Elton John needle drops)
    -Finally, Linda Blair is… SAVAGE STREETS!

    The Exhumed Films guys are GREAT guys who put on a wonderful show EVERY TIME. If you are ANYWHERE near PA (I’m coming from NJ), you HAVE to go to the Horrorthon, tickets on sale soon.
    (There’s a Jeffrey Combs event in a couple of weeks, two nights, he’ll be there, they’re showing all the hits, not sure if tix are available for that).

  19. That’s a solid line-up, just based off HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD and SAVAGE STREETS alone. SS is one of the best female vigilante movies, arguably only topped by ANGEL, and HB is probably my favorite New World picture, which for me is saying something. I just bought the poster when Roger died and I went on a two-week Cormanathon.

    I’ve had the Vinegar Syndrome blu-ray of TOUGH GUYS DON’T DANCE for a while now but haven’t pulled the trigger on it. I get the feeling it needs to be saved for a social occasion.

  20. grimgrinningchris

    June 9th, 2024 at 2:39 pm

    Pac/Chomp. To be fair, Romeo and Juliet’s script has been published and taught AS a book for like 300+ years.

    Obviously a lot later, but I personally read it in paperback form long long before I ever saw a stage production or movie adaptation.

  21. I’ve always like this movie. But thought it was a strange downshift for Penny Marshall after the trifecta of Big, Awakenings and League of their Own.

  22. Never saw this, but really crazy that movies like this used to get released in genuine theaters that people would take real time out to go and see and pay higher prices for than a rental. Curt’s on the money here…it’s not like this movie is probably bad, just I can’t see any reason to watch it. Just some programmer cranked out that probably no one genuinely cared much about, and was quickly forgotten. Today it’s Netflix at BEST, but seems unexeptional for even those slack standards.

  23. It was on TV here last night and I considered watching it before bedtime. I do have to say: It had a certain entertainment factor. “Grumpy outsider wins the heart of other outsiders who are outsiders for different reasons” is a story that almost always works. And for some reason I laughed really hard when Mr Bill got woken up early in the morning by a bunch of soldier stuff and he just stood there and yelled at them: “Do you have to do that here in front of my lawn!?”

    That said: I turned it off after that. If I catch it again on TV and got nothing else to do, I might watch the whole thing, but yesterday there was nothing that made me say: “Yeah, that is totally worth staying up until after midnight on a Tuesday.”

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