I love surprises, especially when presented with something that looks like a piece of schlock crap but turns out to be a gem in the rough. It doesn’t happen very often at the movies, but Bicentennial Man took me by surprise. Robin Williams, the king of annoying, overdone melodramas like “Patch Adams” and “Jakob the Liar”; films that tug at the heart strings like a tractor pull, has redeemed himself with, of all things, a robot movie.
The ad campaign for this film has been, to say the least, misguided. The trailers lift scenes from the first half of the film, when in actuality this is two very different movies in one. The beginning features Andrew (Robin Williams) as a domestic robot in the early 21st century. Immediately bonding to his human owners known to him as Sir (Sam Neil), Ma’am (Wendy Crewson), and daughters Little Miss (Hallie Kate Eisenberg) and Miss (Angela Landis), Andrew struggles to fit in and adapt to life around humans. This is where all those cheesy, juvenile jokes from the trailers come in as Andrew attempts to understand proper behavior, conversation and humor. What is most unusual about Andrew is both his curiosity and creativity, which are not supposed to be part of his original programmed personality. As Neill nurtures these traits, Andrew grows into a self aware, creative near-human. Decades pass, and Andrew upgrades himself with the help of robotics entrepreneur Rupert Burns (Oliver Platt). The first of these upgrades transforms Andrew’s outer appearance to that of human, in order to match the feelings and emotions he experiences within, that human appearance is of course that of Robin Williams. Strangely enough, this is where the film switches from dull situational comedy to a touching tear-jerker as Andrew befriends generation after generation of his adoptive family, only to watch as they grow old and pass on. Eventually falling in love with one of these family members, Andrew is forced to come to terms with his immortality. What follows is an often sad but always promising sequence of events where Andrew continually works toward living a truly complete human life.
Who would have thunk it? In what could have been a big budget remake of the 1981 crapfest “Heartbeeps”, a robot love story featuring Andy Kaufman and Bernadette Peters, Williams and director Chris Columbus have crafted a moving, hanky-clenching drama, without ramming the emotion down your throat. Though the contrived yucks from the first half of the film are unforgivable, the real movie that follows allows Bicentennial Man to break even as a worthwhile trip to the multiplex.