Science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote the novella "The Bicentennial Man" as part of a proposed collection of stories for the American Bicentennial in 1976. Even though the collection never saw print, this parable about what it means to be human led a set of Asimov short stories some time later. Adapted by Nicholas Kazan, who also wrote "Reversal of Fortune" and "At Close Range," the screen story has now become a vehicle for Robin Williams. It satisfies both his own itch for making serious drama (remember "Being Human"?) while including enough wacky Williams comedy to satisfy general audiences.
Seen more than 20 years after its conception, "The Bicentennial Man" seems in some ways quaint -- does anyone shopping online this season really believe a computer-based home device won't need nearly constant technical support? Twenty-three years of dealing with computers have jaded our views of technology enough so that the notion of a robot's philosophical dilemmas isn't a very convincing philosophy, comedy or drama.
Williams plays a robot introduced into the Martin family in 2005. Intended for household tasks, he quickly shows enough humanlike characteristics to be given a name: Andrew.
Andrew makes a special friend of the younger daughter of the house (7-year-old Hallie Kate Eisenberg, this year's Macaulay Culkin) and, as a servant in the Martin household, eventually generates special relationships with her descendants, as well.
Andrew's askew programming causes him to venture deeper and deeper into humanness, so much so that when he begins his second hundred years of service, he becomes more man than machine.
The manly choices he makes dictate his destiny.
Despite the big issues of life, humanity and fate, director Chris Columbus never lets us forget he's the John Hughes protégé who made two "Home Alone" flicks as well as "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Adventures in Babysitting" and "Only the Lonely."
He does this by decorating the domestic landscape with cute puppies, childhood mementos and the inevitable wedding scene. To Columbus, tears equate with humanity; the more the better.
In his efforts to do justice to Asimov Big Issue story, Kazan allows so many loooooong conversations into the plot that at times you may think the movie has been overtaken by PBS producers. Williams changes faces throughout the movie, but when it's him and another Andrews, it's still talking heads. Nevertheless, if anyone's going to animate a machine, it might as well be Robin Williams, one of the few actors to fit a Polish ghetto into a comedy slot (see Jakob the Liar).
His supporting cast, who are mere humans and serve mostly as plot devices to move the robot, has less to do. But Sam Neill shows once again he can nail an understanding Dad role and Embeth Davidtz, first seen suffering as a Nazi's mistress in "Schindler's List" and up soon in "Mansfield Park," has a screen presence that just begs for meatier roles.
Sci-fi fans may be disappointed by the lack of whiz-bang props and by the standard-issue city-of-the-future backdrops. But Williams fans get just enough of their manic hero to maintain them until the next "Aladdin" comes around.