If there's anything that could make me believe in a cruel and vengeful God (or in the existence of the Dark Prince himself), it's the incredible success of writer-turned-director Chris Columbus. Columbus is, in sheer dollar terms, the most successful comedy director of all time, having been at the helm of Mrs. Doubtfire and Home Alone and its first sequel. He has also been involved in the making of such other loathsome titles as The Goonies (1985), Nine Months (1995) and Jingle All the Way (1996).
When his last project, the more serious 1998 Stepmom, was announced, it seemed like a move in the right direction. At least there would be less reliance on his incredible comic deficiencies -- which include a leaden sense of pacing, little grasp of structure and a taste for slapstick that alternates between the stupid and the downright sadistic. Of course, there was no escaping his other vices -- in particular, a overwhelming attraction to bathos.
Bicentennial Man, in which Columbus reteams with Doubtfire star Robin Williams, is being marketed as a comedy for kids, but it's not really a kids' film, nor it is particularly funny, either by design or execution. It is, rather, Columbus' latest attempt at a comically tinged tearjerker, with a fair amount of Williams-tailored comedy thrown in. (It is also, for the record, two-and-a-quarter hours long.)
Williams plays Andrew, an NDR-114 model robot, who is created on April 3, 2005, and sold to the Martin family. In short order, it becomes clear that there is something, well, wrong with Andrew. Although he performs his functions perfectly professionally, he also shows a creative streak, designing and building clocks and making little animal sculptures for one of the Martin children, whom he dubs Little Missy (the terminally cute Hallie Kate Eisenberg, best known to Independent Film Channel devotees as Christie, director of Horses Are Pretty and Oogie Boogie Boogie).
Mr. Martin (Sam Neill), Andrew's benevolent owner, takes him back to the manufacturer and discovers that Andrew has a rare and discontinued positronic brain chip. The company leaps at the chance to replace the chip, which appears to confer what we humans would call a "soul," because, not surprisingly, such things cause nothing but problems. But Mr. Martin recognizes this as nothing short of a robo-lobotomy and instead encourages Andrew to develop his own interests.
A few decades pass. The grownup Missy (Embeth Davidtz) gets married, and Andrew, having become wealthy through the clocks he makes, moves out on his own. He begins a quest for others of his type, finally making his way to the workshop of Rupert Burns (Oliver Platt), son of the positronic chip's inventor. Burns can't help him on his quest, but he does enable Andrew to become increasingly human, first giving him skin, then eventually replacing all of Andrew's crucial parts except, of course, his brain.
It would be churlish to suggest that Columbus, despite his cloddish touch, is unable to wring any laughs from this surefire situation. Andrew's attempts to learn about sex and humor are particularly amusing. But in terms of laughs, this exact hook has been employed infinitely better in any number of previous "human robot" films, including the Andy Kaufman/Bernadette Peters Heartbeeps, John Badham's juvenile Short Circuit and Susan Seidelman's downright creepy Making Mr. Right. One could come up with numerous other examples of better comic exploitation of this concept, of which the most obvious is Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Assuming for the sake of argument that big yuks were not the point of Bicentennial Man, one must justify it by either emotional effect or handling of ideas. Concerning the latter, its treatment of the obvious metaphysical issues -- what constitutes the soul, what defines identity, what is life -- is less interesting than that in either of the two Toy Story films, which confront such problems with a good deal less solemnity.
As for emotional impact -- well, it's not that Bicentennial Man exactly fails. It effectively works over your lachrymal glands ... with a bludgeon. Columbus pulls out every manipulative stop without ever really earning the emotion. Worst of all is James Horner's nauseatingly treacly music -- with another Celine Dion vocal over the closing credits, à la Horner's Titanic -- which telegraphs every reaction. (The score has one decent moment, which appears to have been swiped from Mahler.) To make matters even worse, Columbus does not seem aware of some of the truly creepy undercurrents of the story. Andrew falls in love with a woman whom he's helped raise from childhood; later he falls for her identical granddaughter (shades of Vertigo).
The movie also suffers from an utter lack of dramatic tension. While Andrew is concentrating on the meaning of life, he barely encounters any impediments. He makes tons of money; nobody threatens him. There is no genuine urgency at any point. He never faces any peril; the conflicts are slack. Though Bicentennial Man may be inconsequential, the film raises still more questions about Robin Williams' career. The part may have seemed a natural for him: He has a history of playing nonhumans (Mork and Mindy, Toys, Aladdin) and baffled outsiders (Moscow on the Hudson, Hook, Jack). But the best of those were funny. Bicentennial Man has more in common with the "serious" films that seem to have taken over Williams' career. Not counting cameos and voice-overs, the actor has made 17 films since his seriousness breakthrough with Dead Poets Society (1989). Nearly two-thirds of these have been somewhere between the earnest (Good Will Hunting) and the bathetic (Jack).
It's a sad day when one of the most brilliant talents in America wastes his time trying to prove that he's not fundamentally funny in one "serious" role after another. It's even sadder when so many of them turn out to be so mawkish.
Opens Dec. 17.