By Merle Bertrand | July 31, 2001

With so much attention being lavished on Steven Spielberg’s robot fantasy “A.I.”, let’s take a few minutes to put the spotlight on a robot fantasy which offers an infinite amount of more wit and originality than “A.I.” despite being produced at a fraction of its budget: Tom Sawyer’s wonderfully bizarre and wholly original “The Strange Case of Señor Computer.” Rarely has an indie comedy worked so consistently in creating genuinely unique situations which pay off with an endless skein of intelligent satire and priceless dialogue.
Narrated in a droll yet mechanical voice by its title character, “The Strange Case of Señor Computer” tells the amazing tale of Charlie, a disheveled computer programmer (played by Rick Ziegler with peerless deadpan skill) who is so unpopular at work that his co-workers frequently spike his milkshakes with Ex-Lax. In the isolation of his home, he uses his technological skills to create a robot…albeit one that resembles the robots which populated B-Movies from the bygone years. This odd creation looks like a hybrid washing machine and television camera, and travels about on four wheels while its accordion arms and hooked hands wobble about. Yet no sooner is the robot created than Charlie rejects it as a failure.
Unbeknownst to Charlie, the robot has its own artificial intelligence which flows into a highly individualistic personality. The robot soon begins to learn lessons in human highs and lows from Carlotta, Charlie’s Mexican maid, who begins by introducing the robot to television and teaches him to play with Mr. Potato Head dolls and jack-in-the-boxes. Very quickly, the robot finds his own mindframe and takes advantage of the beleaguered Charlie’s two-week seclusion at a mental hospital to explore his new world. The robot gives himself the name Ike and begins listening to industrial music, reading Freud and getting excited watching Sigourney Weaver in the “Alien” films. He discovers the joy of ordering merchandise by telephone and runs up bills on Charlie’s credit cards while acquiring books, CDS and DVDs. The telephone becomes a new obsession for Ike, who dials away to win concert tickets from a local radio station and finds new lady friends through extended phone chats.
When Charlie returns home, he is aghast at what transpires. But Ike’s devotion to Charlie (whom he dubs “Father”) blossoms in an unlikely manner. Ike realizes that Charlie is lonely and in need of female companionship, so he turns to Carlotta for advice on adjusting Charlie into a full-functioning member of society. Carlotta has no problems discussing the protocol of love and romance with the robot (as richly played by Gladys Hans, she genuinely enjoys being asked her opinion and happily puts aside her work to share her mind). Carlotta’s advice works when Ike arranges for Charlie to date one of Ike’s female phone friends…and Ike himself finds unlikely attention with a lady who takes phone sex to kinky extremes.
Shot in a grainy black-and-white that recalls old-fashioned cheap horror flicks, “The Strange Case of Señor Computer” turns the robot genre upside-down with its unlikely arrangement of wacky characters. Ike, unlike the “A.I.” robots, is not a single-minded machine, but rather is burdened with idiosyncrasies and opinions that common sense cannot flush out. In one of the craziest sequences, Charlie confronts Ike with extraordinary telephone bills and demands an explanation. Ike calmly states he was calling M.I.T. to get expert advice on solving a bio-physics problem facing the character of Darren Stephens on “Bewitched.” Charlie then spends several tortured minutes trying to explain to a stubborn Ike that Darren Stephens is not a real person and that his predicaments are only make-believe. Shocked and surprised, Ike finally responds: “You mean that ‘Bewitched’ is not a reality program like ‘COPS’?”
Like, Ike is paranoid that the creators of generic blue dishwashing liquid are actually a “cabal” of robots seeking economic domination; his obsession eventually forces Charlie to change from the generic brand to a highly advertised brand. Later on, when prepping Charlie on how to be charming on a date, Ike pretends to be a flirty girl with a passion for cinema, citing favoritism for “Intolerance” and the Frankie-and-Annette beach movies. But when Charlie tries to offer an intellectual impression by declaring his interest in the controversial race-baiting text “The Bell Curve,” Ike interrupts Charlie’s recitation of the book’s theories by bluntly stating: “I’m a robot and even I’m offended!”
“The Strange Case of Señor Computer” completely ignores the hackneyed conventions of the robot movie genre in providing a fresh, funny and unexpectedly satirical dissection of the frailties and failings of human existence as seen through the eyes of a robot who quickly discovers he enjoys the benefits of human life. Ike’s concept of living is ultimately lacking humanity: he is grumpy about the inevitability of death and complains how the most promising and pleasant of lives can be abruptly terminated by something as trivial as a chicken bone stuck in a throat. Religion means nothing to Ike, as he reads about the Resurrection but off-handedly dismisses the promise and power offered in Christ’s triumph over death. Ike understands sex but not love, providing an immature philosophy for the love-starved Charlie to pursue women which inevitably backfires for Charlie (who rues his inability to find a true love) but actually scores for Ike (whose lack of heart inevitably attracts him to women who aren’t seeking men with breakable hearts).
Filmmaker Tom Sawyer keeps the film at a quiet, low-keyed level which never tips overboard into chaos or cutesy antics (although the film loses some ground when Charlie attempts suicide via slashed wrists…that is a bit heavy, although the pain of the sequence is quickly medicated with the film’s special brand of odd humor). Unlike too many indie comedies which are constantly banging the audience in the ribs with anvil comedy and tired situations, “The Strange Case of Señor Computer” spins in its own orbit and dares the audience to come into its weirdly one-of-a-kind environment. This is a delightful work of humor which is worthy of Spielberg-level praise.

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