Robin Williams may be stuck. His wacky improvisational style of comedy — think “Aladdin” and “Mrs. Doubtfire” — has grown stale (think “Patch Adams”), but giving him a more focused, less frenetic role, as in the new “Bicentennial Man,” is just as dull, but for different reasons.
That leaves him only the dramatic roles, which he has proven he can do well (“Good Will Hunting,” “Dead Poets Society”), but not consistently (“Jakob the Liar”).
In “Bicentennial Man,” Williams plays a robot named Andrew. His head looks like a cross between a crash-test dummy and an iMac. He’s purchased by the Martin family, for whom he does household chores, in accordance with the three laws governing robots: Can’t hurt people, must obey orders, must protect himself. (For movies about suburban families who get strange visitors with three rules attached to them, see “Gremlins.”) He immediately starts exhibiting signs of actual life and feeling. (See “Short Circuit.”)
The movie plays out for a while like you’d expect it to. The rebellious teen daughter hates him, while the adorable little daughter loves him. Just as you’re handling yet another domestic comedy with a twist — their BUTLER is a ROBOT! — we jump ahead 15 years in time. The younger daughter gets married, even though Andrew is her best friend.
More time passes. Andrew wants his freedom. His owner (Sam Neill) lets him go. He builds his own house on the beach. More time passes. People get old and die. He meets the younger daughter’s granddaughter (that younger daughter is now quite old, you see), Portia (Embeth Davidtz), who looks exactly like her grandmother did when she was that age. (See “We Didn’t Want to Hire Another Actress.”)
With the help of a robot expert named Rupert (Oliver Platt), Andrew takes steps toward becoming a real person. First he has fake skin plastered all over his body, then fake nerves inserted, then fake organs, and so on. His goal: to become a real live person. (See “Pinocchio.”)
This is billed as a family comedy, but it will never succeed as one. It’s 2 hours and 10 minutes long — far longer than most family comedies. Also, it abandons the cute little domestic situation, where most of the laughs are (Mr. Martin explaining sex and humor to Andrew is an amusing scene), early on.
After that, it eventually becomes even a little dark, as Andrew struggles with the fact that’s immortal, but all the people he loves aren’t. Director Chris Columbus (“Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Stepmom”) is the master of sap when it comes to that sort of thing, and it’s played to the hilt here.
Eventually, 200 years have passed since the film started. Such a great space of time should give us the feeling we’ve watched a sweeping epic, a grand portrait of one robot’s journey through life. But it doesn’t. Instead, the frequent jumps in time simply keep us from getting too involved with any one situation, and the story becomes too serious to elicit much in the way of laughter.
Williams plays a robot fairly well in terms of voice and motion, hidden underneath an elaborate costume and machinery. Once he starts to look human, though, he loses it. Andrew is still a robot under the latex skin, yet Williams walks, talks and acts differently — like a person, in fact, which is exactly what he is not supposed to be doing.
“Bicentennial Man” succeeds on the levels of special effects and makeup (particularly for the characters who age). But as a warm family comedy, it’s low on laughs and unfocused in its themes.
C- (; )