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[whitespace] 'Bicentennial Man'
Presidential Debates Baffle Experts: Pundits ask how Al Gore (right) can appear less human than a robot.

Robot Tics

Robin Williams learns to be a loving human in 'Bicentennial Man'

By Heather Zimmerman

BASED ON A SHORT STORY and novel by Isaac Asimov, Bicentennial Man is the story of a robot who, over two centuries, learns what it means to be human. But the tale also echoes some of the lower points in the moviemaking career of star Robin Williams, who too often gets stuck in movies that explore the Human Condition from a completely artificial perspective. That's not to say that this film doesn't offer some interesting commentary on the definition of humanity (clearly Asimov believed it transcends mere biology) nor that Bicentennial Man is anywhere near as appallingly maudlin as Patch Adams. But this comedy/drama never really delves deeper than the surface of the provocative ideas it raises.

Williams dons a sleek metal suit to play a robot purchased by the Martins, an affluent family living in San Francisco, circa 2005. From the moment he inadvertently chooses a name for himself (Andrew), it's clear that this android is unusual. Andrew begins to show signs of creativity and personal attachments, particularly to the father of the family, whom Andrew calls Sir (Sam Neill) and the youngest daughter, Little Miss (played at different ages by Hallie Kate Eisenberg and Embeth Davidtz). Intrigued by Andrew's individuality, Sir encourages the robot's education, and as Andrew's personality becomes steadily more humanlike, he becomes a part of the Martin family, eventually forming an intense friendship with Little Miss' granddaughter, Portia (also played by Davidtz), and transforming his "body" into a close approximation of a biologically functional human form, with the help of a robotics expert (Oliver Platt).

Needless to say, Andrew has his detractors--the elder Martin daughter, Miss (Lindze Letherman), treats him with open hostility, apparently because this mere machine delights her father and sister. Not surprisingly, the script passes over the more plausible explanations for her intense dislike--jealousy, anyone?--in favor of the more dramatic implication that her attitude portends a general badness (or at least that she will dress and behave like a sullen teenage punk well into her adult years). Her irrational hatred for Andrew is inherited by her nephew, Little Miss' rageball-without-a-cause son, Lloyd (Bradley Whitford)--and in Hollywood code for "villain," the best thing about Lloyd is that he's a lawyer.

In fact, for all the film's hints at the vast complexities of being human, it's frustrating, and a little dishonest, that Nicholas Kazan's script doesn't explore why some people dislike something simply because they don't understand it--that's a part of the human condition, too, a sad and often despicable fact of being human that wouldn't flatter audiences. Nevertheless, it seems insulting that we're expected to believe that the worst possible product of human weakness is being a fool for love.

In spite of everything, Williams has an amazing talent for comedy--even those made-for-publicity rounds of late-night talk shows he can turn into hilarious stand-up routines. And though stand-up comedy (which by its nature manipulates familiar truths to get laughs) can seem as calculated as some of Williams' worst films have been, it's when a studio tries to package Williams' unique talent for tapping into those truths that it seems more like he's condescending to us than laughing with us.

Bicentennial Man (PG; 131 min.), directed by Chris Columbus, written by Nicholas Kazan, photographed by Phil Meheux and starring Robin Williams, Sam Neill and Embeth Davidtz, opens Friday at Santa Cruz Cinema 9, the Scotts Valley Cinema and the Green Valley Cinema.

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From the December 15-22, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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