This seems to be the summer of Craig Robinson. The actor and comic is everywhere this August: He’s voicing some grits in the animated feature Sausage Party, which came out last Friday. He’s killing it on Mr. Robot as Ray Heyworth, the creepiest dog-owner in America. And he won a Special Jury Prize for Individual Performance at Sundance for his turn in Morris From America, yet another really lovely coming-of-age film in a summer full of ’em premiering this Friday, August 19.
You probably know him from films like Hot Tub Time Machine, Pineapple Express, and This Is the End. He’s DJ Request in The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard and The Peeps-hating Beast in Rapture-Palooza. But Craig Robinson — best known as Darryl Philbin from The Office — really captured our hearts on TV. When he wasn’t trolling Michael Scott with phrases “us Negroes say” like “dinkin flicka,” he was Doug Judy in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Reg Mackworthy in Eastbound & Down, and frustrated musician-turned-music teacher “Craig Robinson” in his short-lived 2015 sitcom Mr. Robinson.
But the closer you look at Robinson’s career, the more intriguingly weird his comedy gets. Robinson tends to approach his material from an angle that seems obvious, and turns out to be anything but. His stand-up, for instance, involves a fair amount of sitting down: His shows feature Robinson singing and playing (like Darryl) on his keyboard. He starred in a bizarrely entertaining little mini-series with some remarkably sharp dialogue called Mr. Robinson’s Driving School back in 2007. And while other actors and comedians might do impressions or excel at lip-syncing, Robinson killed it on James Corden’s show by crooning classics like “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain.”
I’m delighted to see Robinson getting roles this summer, because the man is funny, but he also has tremendous range. That was evident from his work on The Office alone. In Robinson’s hands, Darryl became more than a crucial foil for the show’s white-collar bubble. As the amused outsider, he was one of the only characters on the show capable of shrugging off (or resetting) the ambient chaos; even when he was dealing with Kelly, managing Jo, or quietly programming Michael, it was obvious Darryl had a rich inner world that we weren’t privy to. (You know how Bill Murray can just stand there and stare, and it’s somehow hilarious and sad and deep? Robinson has that gift.)
In Mr. Robot, Robinson does just the opposite. Rather than deploy that capacity for stillness or gentle contempt, he plays Ray with frank, disarming warmth. It’s a remarkable choice, given what we learn about his character. Robinson does guile well. (Unlike his comedy, where he tends toward a kind of hyper-sincerity — his funniest musical gags involve his character soulfully singing what he wants, a la “Take Yo Panties Off.”)
Then there’s Morris From America, where Robinson shines as Curtis, a widower trying to help his son adjust to their new life in Hedelberg, Germany. The film, directed by Chad Hartigan, tells the story of Morris, a 13-year-old boy (played by Markees Christmas) groping his way through adolescence in a foreign town where he doesn’t speak the language and other kids call him “Kobe Bryant.” It is, in its way, a twin fish-out-of-water story: Father and son are lonely and confused and mired in questions of identity — which get channeled into debates about music.
The film is sharpest when the two clash over rap. Curtis discovers that Morris (an aspiring rapper) has been penning explicit lyrics (about having sex with two women at once, etc.) thanks to a visit from Morris’ German tutor, who finds them troubling. The film threads this needle beautifully, neither vilifying nor validating the tutor (played by Carla Juri): Robinson shuts her down, but it’s obvious he’s launching a necessary defense of blackness against a context that can’t understand him or Morris. He talks to his son about the lyrics, and it’s clear that he’s actually deeply concerned — not because of the lyrics themselves, but because his son is drowning, unmoored, and using rap’s trademark braggadoccio as a crutch instead of digging into it as a means of understanding his own life.
Christmas, it should be said, is terrific as Morris. And Morris in America is his story. There’s a girl (Lina Keller), and the film is about their loss and growth and pain and beauty. But Robinson spins gold out of the few scenes he gets. You leave the film feeling his quiet bereavement in this new life as much as anything else.
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