Body doubles and deception have always been the fertile staples of romantic comedy — look no further than Shakespeare, who imbued such courtly antics with lively flourish to inspire the critical reflexivity and popular recognition that has come to define the Western (and thus modern) literary scene. The proliferation of mistaken identities in Much Ado About Nothing, some four centuries past, has endured past the script and stage to manifest on-screen as a medium for high and low culture alike to elucidate political aims, exorcize personal grudges, or even just provide a good gag. Remember 1994’s Dumb and Dumber? While Peter Farrelly’s deranged buddy comedy provided the archetypal character study of a ridiculous yet endlessly compelling tale of friendship and the desperation to get laid, its conceit lay squarely in Jim Carrey; more precisely, his physiognomic flexibility to squint, grimace, snarl, and cackle his way through rural America.
You’d be hard-pressed to name a comedy this enamored by star presence — and not stardom — today, especially as IPs get generic and the next generation of DALL·E and ChatGPT developers take us one step closer to movie singularity: the day when a generation of screenwriters and acting students put down their placards and pick up their phones to proofread plot points instead. Stardom has enveloped streaming platforms and proliferated their capital, and where stardom can’t be had, the gag is next in line. Not in the conventional sense, as in Chaplin and Keaton with their innumerable burlesque portraits or Ernie Bushmiller’s delightful strip Nancy, but as a device attuned to modern attention spans and then further eroding them. “What if this, but that?” becomes the resounding TL;DR for the latest one-trick pony, and while it’s certainly a bit reductive to disparage all the equines in the room, the few unicorns that do exist are usually stampeded by mass content creation.
All of which is to say that Robots, the directorial effort of Anthony Hines and Casper Christensen (brainchild of Danish sitcom Clown), proves to be a cheap-thrill disappointment inspiring the occasional chuckle and little more. Think: what if a rom-com, but with two couples, one of whom are rogue robotic clones of the other? Charlie (Jack Whitehall), a spoiled and good-for-nothing fuckboy who exclusively dates to hook up, crosses paths with Elaine (Shailene Woodley), an equally conniving gold-digger who pays her rent by bedding rich guys. Unbeknownst to either, the other has a robot double whom they each use to achieve their own nefarious ends: Charlie’s, C2, goes through the hassle of wooing Elaine so that he can get straight down to the action, while Elaine’s, E2, is purposed precisely for the action, and little more. While Charlie lounges with pizza and videogames, sending his productive facsimile to work for his rich papa, Elaine has mastered an itinerary of loaning out hers to the unsuspecting men she headhunts. One’s a toxic sorta-incel; the other’s a vapid hypocrite.
The road to a blissfully unaware life of double deception is, however, blocked by two things. In this world, where credible and anatomically accurate robots are a thing, they’re illegal for personal use (an unexpectedly smart regulatory move!), so openly working two jobs at once is not an option. But having been modified explicitly for personal use, they’re proving not so credible after all; after the duo unwittingly coordinate a one-night stand between their silicone copies and fail to “emotionally deprogram” them, C2 and E2 fall in love, run away, and dump a steaming problem into the laps of their progenitors who are convinced they’ve been framed and impersonated, and are now wanted by the police. The entirety of Robots, then, is a similar cross-country run for the U.S.-Mexico border, where the robots are rumored to have gone. In Mexico, where doubles are legal, they have become both a respite for our antagonists who wish to live human lives and not slave over others, as well as a political scourge for… guess it, illegal immigrant humanoids whom American companies and corporations employ en masse at virtually zero operating cost.
Based on Robert Sheckley’s short story “The Robot Who Looked Like Me,” Robots squanders even its potential to back up its sociopolitical premise beyond mainstream Twitter analytics. Its script would not be out-of-place in a folio of algorithmic prompts, and its character motivations are scant if even existent. Charlie and Elaine don’t quite learn from their moral follies, and their robots’ own awakenings are reduced point-blank to the behaviorist assumptions of computer programming. Quite literally so: after five hours of numbing robot sex, C2 and E2 climax and, just like that, find love. There’s no reason why any of this matters beyond seeing our two real millennials err and bounce back, almost as cathartic reflection of our ideally more palatable selves coping with the perils and pleasures of artificial postmodernity. Perhaps it’s a little harsh to rag on a perfectly serviceable streaming flick, the kind that kids may vibe to (sans the sex part). But a counterpoint to this is the film’s context of production: with a budget of $21 million (which is not Russo-level, but tons more than what many better films receive) and a distribution from NEON, you’d expect something more compelling to come out of a comedy of errors. Instead, what remains past its 93 minutes are some vague, laugh-out-loud sequences which exemplify the vapid supremacy of the gag today: all comedy and no errors, cheapened for bot-friendly consumption.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 21.