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Dustin Putman

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Bicentennial Man (1999)
3 Stars

Directed by Chris Columbus
Cast: Robin Williams, Embeth Davidtz, Sam Neill, Wendy Crewson, Oliver Platt, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Lindz Letherman, Stephen Root, Kiersten Warren, Lynne Thigpen, Bradley Whitford, John Michael Higgins, George D. Wallace.
1999 – 131 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for mild profanity and sexual dialogue).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 20, 1999.

If you saw 1998's "Patch Adams" and heard that Robin Williams' latest attempt at an earnest comedy-drama, "Bicentennial Man," is overly schmaltzy, as well, there may be cause for hesitation. Williams is a fine actor--he always has been--but in recent years, especially since his Academy Award winning turn in 1997's "Good Will Hunting," he hasn't, to my recollection, made a straightforward comedy since. If Williams wants to get a little more serious in his film projects, that is exclusively his prerogative, but the problem is, he usually seems to try just a little too hard, to the point where his dramatic work isn't effective, only melodramatic, corny, and groan-inducing. With that being said, "Bicentennial Man," based on the novel, "The Positronic Man," by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg, is easily Williams' best film (in a starring role) since 1993's "Mrs. Doubtfire," both of which, coincidentally, were directed by Chris Columbus (who also made one of my personal '80s favorites, "Adventures in Babysitting"). "Bicentennial Man" is manipulative in its emotions, to be sure, but it almost always convinces and involves the viewer. And, yeah, there was one scene midway through that very slightly got my eyes watery (although it may have just been that I was having a horrible day to begin with, and the meaning of the scene got under my skin a little more deeply because of this).

Opening in San Francisco, circa 2005, and spanning 200 years in total, a well-off family has a life-sized robot (Robin Williams, in a metallic-looking plastic suit) shipped to their door, programmed to obey all orders and act as a sort of housekeeper. With a bit more internal emotions than the average robot, he is named Andrew by the youngest daughter, whom he calls Little Miss (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), and becomes friends with the parents, Sir (Sam Neill) and Ma'am (Wendy Crewson).

As time passes by and the family gets older, Andrew holds a special place in his heart for Little Miss (now played by Embeth Davidtz), and the feeling is mutual, but because he is just a robot, they know in their minds nothing could possibly come from their relationship. Seeking the help of Rupert Burns (Oliver Platt), a scientist who created his robotic model, Andrew, little by little, begins his quest to become a human, first acquiring skin, and later a central nervous system. By this time, his past family has all passed away, leaving him to care deeply for Little Miss' granddaughter, Portia (also played by Davidtz). However, because his brain is still mechanical and, thus, he remains immortal and considered inhuman, chances of Portia and Andrew being able to marry grow more and more slim. Meanwhile, she herself is getting older and Andrew realizes she won't be around forever, either.

While not without its intermittent humorous moments, "Bicentennial Man" is, no doubt about it, a dramatic motion picture about the passing of time and life. Occasionally devastating to watch, as Andrew witnesses everyone he has ever loved and cared about die around him, the film does not utterly depress and seem as much of a betrayal as the conclusion to the otherwise very good "The Green Mile," because this film holds a deeper meaning, and the subject of death is more natural to the story. Every once in a while, you can see a glimmer of Williams' token maudlin ways beginning to shine through, but it almost always disappears quickly, reminiscent in ways of 1998's "Meet Joe Black."

Passing through a 200-year time span, the picture appreciatively avoids an episodic feel, thanks to the 131-minute running time, which may seem excessively long, but really is the appropriate length to tell this story. Robin Williams, who breaks outside of his robotic costume by the 75-minute mark, is endearing and believable as Andrew, a character always balancing on the line between acting like a human, while still acquiring robotic traits. Matching him in his charm and likability is the underrated Embeth Davidtz, who has two roles (as the adult Little Miss and, later, as Portia), both of which capture Andrew's heart. Williams and Davidtz especially work well together, as they bring an urgency and spark to their unconventional romantic scenes. In notable supporting roles, Sam Neill turns in a quietly touching performance as Sir, who sees how quickly his life is passing before his eyes; Kiersten Warren, as Galatea, the only other functional robot of Andrew's model, has a bright comic sense; and young Hallie Kate Eisenberg (star of the popular Pepsi commercials) is cute, but in an unchallenging role.

The only noticeably major flaw with "Bicentennial Man" is related to the advertising, not the film itself. Being promoted in its trailers as a zany Robin Williams comedy for the whole family, the film is really an occasionally dark parable on the process of life, and the fact that almost all of the characters die at one point through the story is enough to cause, perhaps, a little distress and confusion for younger viewers. "Bicentennial Man" is an accessible, yet appropriately serious, film that most audiences over a certain age of about 8 or 9 have the capability of appreciating. It's just too bad the studio, Buena Vista, has insisted on dishonoring its thoughtful themes and messages with a misleading ad campaign.

©1999 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman