The thought that Penny Marshall has peaked as a director must have already occurred to her. After the sleeper success of "Big" and the critical acclaim of "Awakenings", she has given us the ho-hum "A League of Their Own" and now an outright stinker by the name of "Renaissance Man". Although touted as the next "Dead Poet's Society", it plays more like the sophomoric "Summer School" in which a reluctant teacher manages to motivate a group of high school slackers. "Summer School" is actually the better of the two films because in that film you could at least understand why the plot moved from point A to point B.
The film's main character is an advertising executive named Mr. Rago (Danny DeVito) who loses his job one day and, for some unknown reason, decides not to look for further work in the advertising field. So when an employee of the state's employment service finds him a teaching job, he balks at the idea but takes it anyway.
Turns out that he's not teaching at just any school; he's teaching a remedial course for army recruits going through boot camp. The only problem with this is that the subject matter for the class, basic comprehension, is poorly defined. Initially, his assignments amount to just having the eight students in the class read something and then explain what it is they have read. Mr. Rago also takes it upon himself to do some reading and chooses Hamlet by William Shakespeare. When he describes to his class a few of the events of the play, they are immediately captivated and all further assignments in the class deal exclusively with Hamlet.
As far as Mr. Rago is concerned, the only flies in the ointment of his new position are the temporary nature of the job and a no-nonsense drill sergeant (Gregory Hines) who wants his recruits to be prepared for battle not class. They butt heads a couple of times but eventually gain a respect for one another.
Even though he has gotten through to the recruits, Mr. Rago learns that his efforts are essentially in vain because the army doesn't want them taking a test to prove their knowledge. According to the army, if they fail a test, any test, they will be discharged from the service. Knowing the consequences, why would any of them want to take a test which, if they pass, doesn't earn them any credit and which, if they fail, ends their military careers? Because this is Hollywood, my friends.
Isn't it thoroughly convenient that each and every one of the army's least intelligent recruits develops an instant fondness for Shakespeare when exposed to it? Isn't it strange that Mr. Rago, previously the possessor of a skeptical attitude, develops a sense of responsibility about his students one day out of the blue? And, isn't it just too much to bear that soldiers who use to relentlessly harass one another are now quick to point out the use of metaphors during casual conversations in the barracks? The answer to each of these questions is yes, yes, yes, which is reason enough to make your response to an invitation to see "Renaissance Man" no, no, no.