"Heartbeeps," an indigestible lump of holiday whimsy, seems destined to occupy an obscure niche beside such misguided ephemera as the midget western "The Terror of Tiny Town" and the turtledove romance "Bill and Coo." In fact, it's something of a "Bill and Coo" for robots, with Andy Kaufman and Bernadette Peters cast as wistful robot domestics -- a valet called ValCom 17485 and a housemaid called AquaCom 89045 -- who sneak out of the factory repair shop in hopes of finding a place where they can set up housekeeping on their own.
Evidently, it amused the filmmakers to imagine the computerized appliances of 1995 as grotesquely vulgar mock-human eyesores. Unfortunately, the joke backfires on the co-stars, who are so constrained by shiny, metallic facial makeup and stiff, clownish costumes that they have little room for comic maneuver. Jack Haley enjoyed far more flexibility in his Tin Man disguise in "The Wizard of Oz."
Kaufman and Peters can sustain flickers of expressive movement only with their eyes and mouths. Monotony quickly cancels out the humor in their piping, tinny voices and their awkward gaits -- Peters has a hip-swiveling, Mae Westian hitch in her gitalong, while Kaufman waddles like a pudgy penguin. These touches wouldn't sustain a skit. "Heartbeeps," now at area theaters, has so little inherent momentum that it seems to need rewinding every few minutes. Director Allan Arkush (a cult name in some quarters on the strength of "Rock 'n' Roll High School," an energetic exploitation comedy) struggles to eke out a running time of less than 80 minutes, but the abbreviated "Heartbeeps" feels as stuffy and overextended as "Reds" or "Ragtime."
Val and Aqua are such stiff-jointed simps that it's not surprising to find the director's attention wandering to facetious sidekicks and a facetious menace. The sweet-natured runaways are accompanied by Leonard, a "Catskill unit" robot comedian who tells Henny Youngman jokes through lips molded into a crooked smirk, puffs on a stogie and lifts its brows mechanically after each punchline. Leonard finds an appreciative audience in a giggly juvenile robot, Philco, a spare-parts caddy picked up by the escapees as they stroll around the countryside, supposedly looking for shelter and fresh energy packs. A couple of easygoing human repairmen, Kenneth McMillan and Randy Quaid, begin to track the robots, but their desultory hunt is upstaged by the fanatic pursuit of a highly mobile, trigger-happy police robot called Crimebuster 007.
One gathers that Arkush and screenwriter John Hill regarded Crimebuster as their principal vehicle of satiric commentary. A loose law-enforcement cannon, it putters around shooting from the hip and spreading destruction while mumbling super-patriotic platitudes and singing "America the Beautiful." Smug to begin with, the satire is further tarnished by Crimebuster's tedium-fighting gusto and versatility. Unlike the goody-goody robots that Kaufman and Peters are condemned to embody, Crimebuster is a cinematic energy source -- indeed, the only one in sight.
Although it's intended to ridicule lunatic right-wingers, this crazed prop must appeal to the filmmakers far more than any other "character," mechanical or human. It's the sort of potentially lethal super-toy that ought to bring out sneaky, hypocritical affection in a director like Arkush, whose apparent specialty is anarchic juvenile farce. At any rate, he shows no flair for the fey, would-be endearing comic interplay between Val and Aqua, a drawback that probably does him credit.
"Heartbeeps" should disappear quickly enough to encourage instant amnesia on the part of everyone involved. It's unlikely that Kaufman or Peters face serious career setbacks from a minor fiasco only a handful of people will ever see.