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One Stalled Step for 'Man'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 1999


    'Bicentennial Man' Robin Williams plays an android in "Bicentennial Man."
In "Bicentennial Man," Robin Williams plays Andrew, an android who must endure centuries of frustration before he can even hope to become a human being.

You think it's tough on him? Try the audience. Waiting for this 'droid to catch up gets real old – long before that last Raisinet.

The issue isn't mere running time, although the movie is a fat 133 minutes. What I'm talking about is dramatic time mismanagement.

The movie, set in the first decade of the new millennium, begins well. The future Andrew, an NDR-114 robot, has just become the domestic property of Richard Martin (Sam Neill) and family.

A charming mispronouncement by the Martin's daughter Little Miss (Hallie Kate Eisenberg) turns "Android" into "Andrew," and an identity is born.

Although Andrew swiftly learns the routine as a butler-servant, he seems to have a certain human quality. He picks up a spider in the basement and sets it gently on the flowers outside. When he accidentally breaks Little Miss's favorite glass horse, he feels bad, bones up on carpentry and carving, then fashions her a new horse out of wood. Oh, and he likes opera.

I haven't read Isaac Asimov's short story of the same name or his "The Positronic Man," both of which inspired Nicholas Kazan's script. But I would guess that Asimov's work has been subsumed by director Chris Columbus's desire to make another "Mrs. Doubtfire" with Williams.

At first, that "Doubtfire" approach works well. Williams simply has to be funny. He can't help himself. Puzzled by this thing called "humor," Andrew does his best to figure out the immortal question: "Why did the chicken cross the road?" His answer: "Possibly a predator was behind the chicken."

At another point, a teenage Martin daughter orders Andrew upstairs and commands him to leap from the second story window. Without batting a metal eyelid, Andrew plunges. Cut to Mr. and Mrs. Martin playing a board game as Andrew plummets past their window and crashes to the ground.

"Did you hear something?" asks Richard. His wife shakes her head. A moment later, the doorbell rings. But then, the movie you thought you were watching becomes, well, a little too out there. Or perhaps more accurately, the movie doesn't handle "out there" very well.

Andrew's human qualities make him yearn for freedom and, finally, love. But he must become fully human.

Although there's peripatetic poignancy over the years, as Andrew meets new person after new person, something is definitely lost in the ellipsis. Meanwhile, Andrew keeps waiting for the neurological and physical artificial implants that will allow him to love, in all senses of the word.

Unfortunately, for a film that's meant to be the ultimate statement about the human condition, "Bicentennial Man" is a cold, protracted and unemotional affair. Moreover, we have to accept an overaged, sexually retrofitted robot switching the long-standing affections he has for Little Miss (played as an adult by Embeth Davidtz) into a new bid for her granddaughter Portia (also Davidtz). Maybe I'm an old-fashioned guy not yet used to cybermorals, but isn't that . . . a little too weird for a PG-rated movie?

BICENTENNIAL MAN (PG, 133 minutes) – Contains very strong language for a PG rating, as well as discussion of sexual matters.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company


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"Bicentennial Man"
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