Review: A bit of whimsy is not enough to bring robot-buddy picture ‘Brian and Charles’ to life
Even as the low-key mockumentary “Brian and Charles” impressively scales down a sci-fi concept to fable size, it neither does much to maintain its oddness nor finds that right mix of comedy and pathos to have much impact.
Introduced in a nighttime long shot as he welds in a very crammed farm shed, lonely Welshman Brian (David Earl) is a bearded, shambolic handyman with a keep-trying philosophy toward life. That outlook seems born of necessity, having referenced a “topsy-turvy” existence, and showing off bizarre inventions (a belt that holds eggs, a pinecone-studded bag, a cabbage bin) that suggest an imagination missing a usefulness chip.
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He decides to build a discarded-parts robot — “to help me lift things,” he convinces himself — and it’s an unwieldy creature, of course: 7 feet tall, with a boxy torso, a white-tufted mannequin’s head, a geriatric’s leisurewear (cardigan and bow tie), and a buzzing, blue-lighted sensor in one eye. But when it proves sentient, friendly and willing to learn, Brian names the robot Charles and begins to relish his new role as combination pal, caretaker and worried father figure. Brian and Charles (acted by Chris Hayward, whose Leonard Rossiter-like voice is perfectly pitched between gentlemanly and mechanical) even share a love of cabbage.
Adapted from a couple of characters Earl and Hayward have performed in stand-up and in a short film, “Brian and Charles” is just daft enough a premise to spark a pilot light of charm, but that makes its superficial meandering so frustrating — the warmth has nowhere to go. Although never explaining to us the technology is a sign of storytelling smarts, for example (this isn’t world-building, after all), the mockumentary format that director Jim Archer uses is lazy filmmaking — the only reason it seems to be there is to justify Brian’s who-I-am ramblings in the early going, which are more often just eccentric or explanatory than illuminatingly funny.
More worrisome is when the bonding montage scored to the Turtles’ “Happy Together” arrives, and you can tell the filmmakers aren’t clear whether this is a tongue-in-cheek jab at a standard convention or an honest bid for feeling — either way, groaning is the only appropriate response.
Though Charles’ growing cheekiness and need for independence is amusing, once his novelty as a Python-esque Pinocchio is gone, there’s a sharp drop-off in creativity as the filmmakers add blasé elements meant to raise the stakes for Brian’s newfound sociability: an equally shy love interest named Hazel (Louise Brealy), and a nearby family of bullies, led by the violent Eddie (Jamie Michie).
Occasionally, one gets a beautifully photographed insert of sheep against the picturesque Welsh countryside, but outside that (and, well, cabbage), “Brian and Charles” doesn’t really feel of its place. Like a lot of comedy these days, it could exist anywhere, and it feels more like an extended skit in front of a backdrop than something rooted. It’s a light dusting of feel-good whimsy that will make some yawn and some smile and maybe even some go as Charles for Halloween.
‘Brian and Charles’
Rated: PG, for language, mild violence and smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: Starts June 17 in general release
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