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by: Scott Renshaw

And so Robin Williams' career has come full circle. Twenty years ago, his celebrity was insured when he played an innocent to the ways of humanity, drawing sit-com laughs from his literalist misunderstanding of idioms and his awkward attempts at humor, before ending the story with a speech to tell us everything he has learned. In Bicentennial Man, Williams plays an innocent to the ways of humanity, drawing sit-com laughs from his literalist misunderstanding of idioms and ... well, you get the idea. After two decades of box office success and an Academy Award, it has come to this: Robin Williams is playing Mork again.

I'm sure Williams would not see things that way. He would doubtless inform us that his is a complex and challenging character, a domestic robot called Andrew serving the Martin family of Northern California. He would explain that the relationships were rich -- the mentor/student connection between Andrew and Martin patriarch Richard (Sam Neill); the gentle affection between Andrew and the Martin's youngest daughter, whom he calls Little Miss (Hallie Kate Eisenberg); the more profound affection between Andrew and the grown up Little Miss (Embeth Davidtz). He would describe a robust character arc, in which Andrew comes to exhibit creativity and feeling, and begins a life-long quest to become more human. He might even acknowledge the comic relief value of Oliver Platt as eccentric robotics scientist Rupert Burns, and Kiersten Warren as the perky female robot Galatea.

All of that might have been true in some incarnation of the story, based on two short stories by Isaac Asimov, the father of the robot-in-existential crisis concept. This incarnation, however, is directed by Chris Columbus, whose contributions to deep-thinking Western cinema include Home Alone, Home Alone 2 and Nine Months. He's an unapologetic crowd-pleaser as a director, but a crowd-pleaser in the most irritating of ways. His is a style that favors low-brow gags and gee-whiz pacing, then feigns depth by wrapping things up with sentimental message-mongering (and, in this particular case, three -- count them, three -- death bed scenes). Bicentennial Man doesn't even manage the gee-whiz pacing; after a moderately promising start, the film drifts into two hours of Andrew growing ever more pensive about his place in the world.

Such pensiveness is likely meant to allow Robin Williams an uplifting acting showcase (at least once Andrew sheds his metal casing for Williams' human face). Williams has seemed inordinately fond of uplifting acting showcases lately, eschewing straight-ahead comedy for roles like Patch Adams, What Dreams May Come and Jakob the Liar. Unfortunately, he's not doing himself any favors in his choices of material, heading for parts that allow him to do plenty of emoting between gags. There's no gravity to Williams' performance as Andrew, none of the conflicted pain of a being coming to terms with its own consciousness and its isolation in the world. That's because he's being directed by Chris Columbus, for whom gravity is just the thing that keeps his films from floating away entirely. When Bicentennial Man sticks to light comedy, it's not half bad. When it takes its epic scope too seriously, it's more than half bad.

Bicentennial Man does boast solid work from its supporting cast of Davidtz, Neill and particularly Platt (for my money, now the most reliable comic actor in film). The technical credits are top-notch, with one wild scene in which Platt molds artificial flesh into Williams' face. There's even the chance to consider possible metaphors in Andrew's desire to be legally recognized as a human to marry the woman he loves (advocacy for "non-traditional" marriage?). There's also plenty of opportunity to watch the film grow ponderous in the long stretches between laughs, and to consider how stale Robin Williams' once-pr


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