It’s uncomfortable watching Robin Williams find out he only has 90 minutes left to live in “The Angriest Man in Brooklyn” — only slightly longer than the length of the film, in fact — but it’s a fate that will be familiar to moviegoers who saw 1997’s “The 92 Minutes of Mr. Baum,” written and directed by Assi Dayan, the Israeli matinee star who died May 1.
Opening in the United States on Friday, May 23, the new version of the film focuses on Henry Altmann, a bad-tempered Brooklynite who, finding out that he has a brain aneurysm, rushes all over the city to make amends with everyone he’s hurt throughout his life.
Starring Williams, Mila Kunis and Peter Dinklage, the new version adopts the original’s concept but changes some salient details, said co-producer Daniel Walker, who spent 12 years trying to get the film made.
In Dayan’s film, part three of his “philosophical trilogy” about contemporary Israel that began with “Life According to Agfa,” advertising executive Mr. Baum (played by Dayan) is forced to reexamine his life after he’s told he has an “aggressive” brain tumor and will die in 90 minutes, which is about the length of the film.
Baum, an advertising executive obsessively focused with an upcoming commercial for purple sunglasses, sets about settling his affairs when he finds out about his impending death. Dayan’s original version was seen as a philosophical human comedy, “cerebral and surprisingly light-hearted,” according to a Hollywood Reporter review in 1999, “basically Samuel Beckett meets Dr. Kevorkian.”
It isn’t surprising to find that Dayan treated such weighty material with a light hand, given his history and familiarity with difficult subjects (domestic strife, illness, substance abuse, and brushes with the law).
In fact, that’s what Walker liked about it from the very start.
It was back in the late 1990s that Walker, a British lawyer living in Paris, first became involved with the original film, as the attorney for the French co-producer. At the time, the film had lost its financing, and Walker helped restructure the funding.
He loved the film.
“I thought it was completely brilliant,” said Walker.
In fact, he loved it so much that he left his work as a lawyer, optioned the remake rights from producer Haim Mecklberg in 2000 and then spent the next 12 years trying to find the right team to make it. He also established his own production company, Force Majeure, which worked on other films in the meantime. But he couldn’t give up on Mr. Baum.
Walker described it as a “litany of having some things in place, but not all of them, waiting for 50 people to say yes, and 49 doesn’t do the trick.”
The film was a difficult sell to directors, actors and producers because it was a depressing story, and Walker was intent on having Baum, aka Altmann, die at the end. (No spoiler here.) He sold it to a studio that then went bankrupt, and then to another studio that left to do TV shows. He wanted to film it in Europe, concerned that if it were done in the US it couldn’t offer the same kind of dark humor, but then relented for the sake of a deal with an American producer.
The film’s subject is difficult, admitted Walker, and he sees the final remake as a “very American take on the idea.”
“I think it’s a film that deals in a very genuine and honest way about what’s going to happen to every single person and about not dealing with stuff,” he said. “It’s about embracing who you are and making the most of what you’ve got and how much time you’ve got left. It’s quite universal. I know a lot of people who could do with that kind of advice.”
It was when one of the other producers, Landscape Entertainment’s Bob Cooper, pinpointed director Phil Alden Robinson, that the remake finally seemed to be in the offing.
“We liked Phil Robinson,” said Walker. “He’s 60, he’s Jewish, he got it and he liked the script.”
Robinson, a former Long Islander, is probably best known for directing “Field of Dreams.”
Robinson was able to snag Williams and Kunis, who plays his doctor — a role added in the remake — and is the clincher for attracting younger audiences.
“My kids don’t know who Robin Williams is,” said Walker, referring to the fact that much of the actor’s work was in the 1980s and 1990s. “But no one doesn’t know Mila Kunis.”
Kunis, who is Jewish and was born in the former Soviet Union, became known for her recurring role in “That ’70s Show,” and is now engaged to actor Ashton Kutcher, with whom she is expecting her first child.
Even with two stars on board, the film ran into other troubles; when one of the hedge fund managers backing $3 million of the movie’s costs disappeared, the producers, screenwriter, composer, Williams and Kunis deferred or decreased their salaries.
The filming did finally begin, in Brooklyn, and once it started, the process was somewhat redemptive, said Walker.
Williams, who loved the script from the start, “saw something in it that resembled him,” said Walker. “He had been through tough times, alcoholism, he left his wife, married the nanny, he just saw a real character that was up against a nightmare and who was going to make the most of this, wasn’t going to bury it all under the carpet.”
With the imminent release of the film, and on the heels of Dayan’s unexpected death, Walker said he hoped Dayan would have appreciated the remake.
“It’s a very different film from his, especially because he not only wrote and directed but played the lead character,” he said. “A remake is remaking an underlying idea. I hope he would like it.”