In “Robin’s Wish,” a documentary about the last days of Robin Williams, the comedian’s widow, Susan Schneider Williams, recalls one of the first times that she could tell something was seriously off. Robin called her from Vancouver, where he was shooting the third “Night at the Museum” film, and he couldn’t calm himself down. He was having a panic attack over the fact that he couldn’t remember his lines; at times, he was having trouble remembering even one line of dialogue. That wasn’t a problem he’d had before, and given that he was one of the most mentally nimble people who ever lived, you can see how disturbing this might have been. Shawn Levy, the “Night at the Museum” director, recalls Robin telling him, “I don’t know what’s going on. I’m not me anymore.” His mind, says Levy, “was not firing at the same speed. That spark was diminished.”
Susan also tells a story about how the night before they were planning to visit Mort Sahl, the classic comic who was a pal of Robin’s, Williams became obsessed, in the middle of the night, with the fear that Mort wasn’t okay. He had to go check up on him. He started sending him text messages, and since they weren’t returned (Mort, in all likelihood, was asleep), he took that as evidence that things were not okay. “This was a typical night for us,” says Susan. She remembers that Williams, in the midst of his paranoia, said, “I just want to reboot my brain.”
“Robin’s Wish,” which deals with the slow creep of Williams’ deterioration during the final months of his life, is a documentary that’s honest and scary, wrenching and moving. It’s a portrait of the artist as a brave, joyous, wounded soul. It’s also a diary of Robin Williams slowly losing his mind.
When Williams committed suicide, on Aug. 11, 2014, it was only about six months into his ordeal. His symptoms had gotten gradually worse — the cognitive decline, the impairment of movement in his left hand – but he’d had brain scans that turned up nothing. The one diagnosis he’d received during this time was a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. He was told that it was early and mild. That was surely a devastating thing to hear, but Williams knew that something else was wrong. He asked his doctor, “Do I have Alzheimer’s? Do I have dementia? Am I schizophrenic?” He could sense the center wasn’t holding, but he scarcely had words to describe that feeling. And when he took his life, he still didn’t know what it was. He just felt himself slipping away.
It was only during an autopsy that doctors learned he’d been suffering from Lewy body dementia, a degenerative condition with many similarities to Alzheimer’s, though it takes hold more quickly. In the film, Dr. Bruce Miller, Director of the Memory and Aging Center at UCSF, explains how Lewy body dementia works, using phrases like “the misfolding of proteins with neurons.” Essentially, the neurons degenerate, a syndrome that builds until it sweeps across the brain stem, affecting every aspect of experience: sleep, mood, cognition. The disease, he says, “becomes progressively irreversible, unstoppable, and always fatal.” Susan Williams says that “If we’d had the accurate diagnosis of Lewy body dementia, that alone would have given him some peace.” But watching the documentary, you may wonder if that’s the case. Robin Williams had the sensitivity to sense what was happening to him, and part of the film’s devastation is that it’s not clear that more knowledge would have diminished the slow burn of his torment.
“Robin’s Wish” celebrates who Robin Williams was: the free-associative genius with the mind of a prankish computer, the mercurial soul who poured out not just his thoughts but his feelings, the deeply vulnerable middle-aged man who had been through the wringer of addiction and divorce and tabloid fame, and who met Susan outside an Apple Store. They bonded over many things, including the 12-step program they were both in, and the movie presents us with a compelling vision of their marriage — we see a bevy of photographs of the private scruffy Robin, who has never looked more like a radiantly ordinary person.
They lived in Marin, north of San Francisco, because Williams wanted a real neighborhood (as opposed to what he felt was the gated-community aspect of L.A.). He was good friends with a number of his neighbors, who are interviewed here. He biked and ran with them; he was the guy next door. But one of those neighbors tells a story about how Robin, in the last months, showed up at his house, asking if he could look at the boats through the back window, and he just stared out that window, frozen, for 10 minutes.
Directed and shot by Tylor Norwood, “Robin’s Wish” doesn’t try to be the full-on portrait that Marina Zenovich’s bedazzling HBO documentary “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” was. Yet it hits, glancingly, on touchstones of the Williams saga: the time he spent at Juilliard, where he went to become a serious actor; his fork-in-the-road reaction to the death of his friend John Belushi; his devotion to entertaining the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq (we see the bond he had with them — his ability to connect with what they were going through as soldiers); and his friendship with Christopher Reeve, about whose paralysis after a horse-riding accident he said, tellingly, “I don’t think I could go through that. And I wouldn’t want to.” We see amazing tapes of Williams improvising the role of the Genie in “Aladdin,” and then, years later, doing the improv thing locally, at a comedy club in Marin, where he’d show up and perform for hours — until he began to stop showing up, another early sign that something was wrong.
The film talks about the glib media perceptions that greeted Williams’ death: the speculation that he’d committed suicide out of some combination of depression, drugs, despair. There was chatter about financial troubles, and the fact that his CBS sitcom, “The Crazy Ones,” had been canceled after one season. You can understand why this went on; we were all trying to make sense of what seemed like an impossible tragedy — the loss of the ultimate life-force comedian. But if “Robin’s Wish” has an agenda, it’s to clear the air of innuendo and to capture the devastation a disease like Lewy body dementia can cause. It’s beyond cruel that the disease cut down Robin Williams the way it did. In that sense the film is a warning, in the form of a testament to what a glorious blinding light of a human being he was.
“Robin’s Wish” is now available on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu and other digital platforms.