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Embeth Davidtz is wasted in awful Bicentennial Man

Bicentennial Man
Starring: Robin Williams, Sam Neill, Embeth Davidtz, Oliver Platt, Wendy Crewson, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Lindze Letherman, and Kiersten Warren
Screenplay: Nicholas Kazan, based on the novel "The Positronic Man" by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg
Producers: Chris Columbus, Michael Barnathan, Gail Katz, Laurence Mark, Neal Miller, Wolfgang Petersen, and Mark Radcliffe
Director: Chris Columbus
MPAA Rating: PG for some strong language and sexual content

Director Chris Columbus is one of those directors who loves to play with people's emotions. He's quite adept at making people cry. He did it well with last year's Stepmom. But he's better at making us laugh, as he proved with his debut film Adventures in Babysitting as well as 1993's comic gem Mrs. Doubtfire, starring this film's Robin Williams. Certainly, that latter film had its fair share of sappy moments, but the comic wizardry of Williams held the film up.

Williams himself has had a very sporadic career lately--his last real good performance being in 1991's The Fisher King. But for some reason, Williams has changed from a skilled thespian to an actor willing to be in the some of the most banal and melodramatic films ever created. Many will remember last year's Patch Adams, which, while a box office hit, was thrashed by critics (myself included) for being manipulative and overly sentimental. Those of you who know my taste in film will know that I am not a big fan of sentimentality (particularly when done poorly). Unfortunately, Williams has hit rock bottom with Bicentennial Man, a film so putrid that describing it is virtually impossible. Let's just say that it makes Patch Adams look restrained.

Bicentennial Man begins promisingly enough. The film starts off "somewhere in the near future" as a NorthAm Robotics delivery truck arrives at an expensive-looking home. Inside the truck is the latest craze: an android that acts as a household appliance. Every wealthy person has one, and Richard Martin (Sam Neill) is more than happy to jump on the wagon. The robot, named Andrew by Richard's youngest daughter Amanda (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), is to perform menial tasks around the house while looking after the kids. Rebellious teen Grace (Lindze Letherman) doesn't like it, ordering him to jump out of their second-story window just for fun. Meanwhile, his wife (Wendy Crewson) doesn't like having Andrew follow her around. Richard tells the family that Andrew is there to stay and to think of him as one of them. Andrew is amazed by the graciousness of the father's request, and it triggers something inside.

For two hours, Bicentennial Man follows Andrew as he grows from a simple household device into a fully-functional lifeform. What type of lifeform is debated, however, particularly when Andrew requests that he be recognized as a human being. It is this aspect of the plot that is the most interesting, and it is also the aspect of the plot that is given the least amount of time to develop. What constitutes humanity? Does the ability to feel and taste be a necessity? Or how about the inevitable death? Andrew, you see, is infinite. His lifespan can go one forever. This is all quite interesting, but it isn't anything new either. The same subject is tackled with much more intelligence in the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series (Commander Data hopes to one day become human). So what does this film have to offer exactly?

That's a question I asked myself constantly throughout the entire two hours. I kept waiting for an answer, but the only thing I could come up with by the end credits was: nothing. The performances by Embeth Davidtz and Sam Neill are skillful enough, but they belong in a different film. Davidtz, especially, has the difficult role of playing two different characters believably. Director Columbus undermines her performance constantly, most apparent in a sadly obvious trick shot involving an "old" Davidtz and a "young" Davidtz. It's as if Columbus is merely saying, "Look what I can do!" We've seen it all before, of course.

Robin Williams is doing nothing that he hasn't done before. It's a role that requires him to blink a lot and ask questions. It doesn't give him a chance to do what he does best, which is to make us laugh. He gives one-liners that are sometimes funny and sometimes not. He tells jokes in a stream of consciousness, which might have been funny had the jokes been original. Williams also gets to utter the film's most sentimental line of dialogue following his first real kiss: "It's all they ever said it was." Yes, I gagged on that one. But that's merely the start of what quickly becomes one of the most manipulative motion pictures ever made.

What can you say about a film that makes you physically sick to the stomach? It's two hours long, and it feels like four. I have not officially read the novel by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg, but I can only imagine that it must be better than this. It has to be. I haven't seen crap like this put on screen since 1996's Romeo + Juliet. There is perhaps ten minutes of worthwhile film here, and the rest is just filler. The screenplay by Nicholas Kazan is sentimental, sappy, and melodramatic (and not in a good way). This is one of the worst big-budget motion pictures I've ever had the displeasure of sitting through. At one point towards the end of the film, I checked my watch and thought I wouldn't be able to make it. I have only walked out of a film once (the aforementioned Shakespeare adaption) and I was tempted here to do it again. It's that bad.

And for the love of God, I can't figure out why the film turned out this way. It has the talent behind the camera, and a reliable cast (except for the "stick-to-Pepsi" Eisenberg), but something went awry. Someone decided to take the film's message and shove it full force down the throats of viewers. Someone decided that Williams' recycling his Patch Adams performance was a good idea. That someone really needs to be shot (might I be the one to pull the trigger... please?). There is not one second in the film that is even remotely believable, even when taking into account the film's internal logic. Nothing here makes any sense. The film wants to tackle deep, complex issues such as love and what makes us human. Unfortunately, the film doesn't explore anything seriously. To its credit, I doubt anyone could take this seriously. It's a film designed to please crowds, but forgot who the crowd was. Kids will be utterly bored by the film's meandering plot, and adults will find themselves holding down the same popcorn they ate just a few minutes before. For a PG rated film, this certainly is rather harsh.

Bicentennial Man is rated PG for some surprisingly strong language as well as some issues dealing with sexual reproduction. It's not totally appropriate for children, and it's just repulsive to adults. I pray that Robin Williams realizes that he is creating some of the worst crap of the 90s and changes his ways for the next millenium. Chris Columbus has had his high points, but this is definitely his lowest point. It's worse than both Home Alone and its sequel. It's the kind of film that makes viewers appreciate every American Beauty or Fight Club. There is not one second of this film in which I was pleased. I sat in horror for two hours as I watched what began as a cute, little film turn into the worst film of 1999. It's one of the worst films of the decade. And hopefully, audiences will make sure that nothing like this gets created again.

Zero Stars out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
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