Robots and Actors

Steven Spielberg's A.I. is neither the worst
nor the best movie he has ever made, but it is certainly the strangest. Our
initial tendency is to attribute this to the involvement of Stanley Kubrick, who
collaborated with Spielberg on the project for many years (though when he was
given complete control after Kubrick's death, Spielberg rewrote the entire script
and directed it on his own). But I think the strangeness comes from somewhere
else: specifically, from deep inside Steven Spielberg. A.I. is a much more
disturbing movie than anything this silly has a right to be, and I think that's
because Spielberg has used it--unwittingly, I suspect--to reveal the darkest
corners of his own unconscious. The unconscious is a notoriously disorganized
place, and its unacknowledged influence may explain why the movie finally comes
across as such a mess.

The plot, as perhaps everybody knows by now, involves a little boy who
is really a robot. The Pinocchio overtones are made explicit in the movie, and
implicit in them is a kind of veiled competition between the upstart Dreamworks
and the aging old Disney studio (which, in case you've forgotten, made the
memorable animated feature about the little wooden puppet who wanted to be a
"real boy"). Other old movies are also invoked, particularly The Wizard of
Oz,
though this time the wizard is played by a creature called Dr. Know, who
looks like a cross between Albert Einstein and Steven Spielberg. I detected
allusions to earlier Spielberg movies as well--E.T., of course, but also The
Color Purple,
Amistad, and, most weirdly, Schindler's List. For the
robots in this movie are a persecuted minority--a helpless, gentle, respectable
group who are viewed as an inferior species by the humans and are publicly
destroyed for the human mob's pleasure. The horrific scene in which this
destruction is shown draws on exactly the same kind of brutality Spielberg lodged
in the Ralph Fiennes character in Schindler.

What, exactly, are we to make of this analogy? That the Jews were, like
A.I.'s robots, a subspecies created by the Germans for their own practical
purposes? Or conversely, that anything that looks and acts human must be
human, so we put ourselves in moral jeopardy if we fail to perceive its innate
rights? But movie characters played by live actors look and act human; we may
even be fooled into having real emotions about them. (A lot is made in A.I.
about the capacity to feel love, and the theme is handled with all the rigor and
subtlety we have come to expect from Hollywood.) Does this mean we have to
believe that these blatantly fictional figures are human? Do we really rank
manufactured objects alongside verifiable Homo sapiens, with the same rights
and duties owed to both?

Sarcasm is the natural response to a movie like this--and yet A.I. gets to
you at a level that makes sarcasm seem churlish and defensive. We long for little
David (played by Haley Joel Osment with his usual otherworldly precocity) to
become a real boy and to win the unambivalent devotion of his mother. But even as
we capitulate to the longing, we remain fully aware of the movie's creepiness.
The mother (Frances O'Connor, in a thankless role) is so strangely intense a love
object in this movie that it's almost surprising that A.I. didn't receive an
NC-17 rating. At the movie's conclusion, David (resuscitated by kindly visiting
aliens 2,000 years after the end of humanity--and no, you don't want to hear the
details) gets his wish in the form of a single day spent with his mother, during
which he and he alone fulfills her every need. He wakes her up with a kiss and
puts her to bed at night, and actually comments on how glad he is that her
husband and her flesh-and-blood son are both long gone. This is the kind of thing
that real boys say when they are about two or three years old; but to see the
fantasy enacted in full Spielbergian regalia--to see it treated as a reasonable
wish--is almost unbelievably bizarre.

The only unmitigatedly good thing about A.I. is the performance turned in
by Jude Law. Despite the fact that he too is playing a mechanical object (a sex
robot called Gigolo Joe), he is the most vital thing about the movie. He must
have ad-libbed some of his lines, because they have a witty sparkle utterly
lacking in the rest of the script; as for the way he moves, it has a grace and
sprightliness rarely seen on screen since Ray Bolger played the Scarecrow. It is
not just that Jude Law is more beautiful than anyone else who ever appears with
him (though he is that, to be sure); it's that he seems so much more alive
than anyone else. Remember his marvelous scene as Dickie Greenleaf in The
Talented Mr. Ripley,
when he was singing and banjo-strumming in a French
nightclub alongside Matt Damon's lumpish Tom Ripley? Picture that, and you'll get
some idea of how he looks next to all the robotic performances in A.I.

Actor performances are the main reason to go see the new Frank Oz
movie, The Score. It's a skillfully executed but basically hackneyed heist story
involving a priceless object stored in the Montreal Customs House that needs to
be liberated by a gang of technologically expert thieves. This would have no
interest whatsoever if the gang did not include Edward Norton, Robert De Niro,
and Marlon Brando.

Like everyone else, I am tired of watching Brando phone in ridiculous
performances. This one is something else. He first appears in a white suit and
fedora, looking like a cross between Sydney Greenstreet and Truman Capote, and he
camps it up from then on. Yet his scenes with De Niro (which are practically all
the scenes he has) have a gentleness, a wry humor, a sense of the real pleasure
of acting, that I haven't seen from him in a long time. Brando reportedly banned
Frank Oz from the set on the days he was being filmed, so the director had to use
De Niro as his surrogate, and you can feel this: There is an intimacy, a
back-and-forth awareness between the two great actors that is impossible to fake.
There are also moments when Brando is clearly improvising (De Niro first looks
surprised, then cautiously amused) and this interaction also is a joy to watch.
These guys are having fun with their roles, and they bring us into the fun with
them.

The highest praise I can give to Edward Norton is to say that he holds his own
in this company. He does so with more tricks than the older actors use (his part
includes a subrole as a quivering, pathetic, feebleminded character), but he uses
them in a manner that finally works. And he allows himself to be the butt of the
movie, so that we can enjoy the sight of the other two triumphing over him. It's
a generous performance and a very entertaining one.

A friend of mine describes movies like The Score as being "like good
television," which he means disparagingly. But in this season of reruns, trashy
reality shows, and smirking HBO series, good TV is hard to find at home. We
should be grateful when it's offered to us in the theaters.

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