Oh, The Humanity! Heartbeeps

heartbeeps indexAndy Kaufman famously offered to refund the ticket price for anyone who hadn’t enjoyed this shockingly odd movie in which he plays a robot who falls in love with another robot played by Bernadette Peters, and I can only presume that he then faked his death a couple of years later as otherwise it would have meant financial bankruptcy and being harassed by angry fans for the cash for the rest of his life.

From Allan Arkush, the director of the much loved movies Rock ‘N’ Role High School and Get Crazy, as well as the acclaimed cast it comes with a score from John Williams and effects by Stan Winston, so clearly there was a lot of hope that it’d be a hit. Unfortunately we’ll never really know whether it deserved to be or not however as when Arkush turned in his cut of the movie the studio was appalled and whittled it down to a 78 minute version. The Studio interference is ridiculously apparent too as there’s a fair few jarring cuts between scenes and some very clunky voice overs explaining why the action has suddenly moved from one location to another.

Even without their having recut the movie I doubt it would have been a hit though as it’s such a weird and strange flick, where after being returned to a factory for repair Andy Kaufman’s robot Val meets Aqua (Bernadette Peters) who has been sent back to be recommissioned as a “companion hostess for poolside parties and other social occasions” which I worry may be their way of describing a sex robot. They chat a bit, flirt, and then in one of the films oddest moves (of which they are many) they are joined by Catskill (Jack Carter) a stand up comedian robot who is only able to say terribly hacky jokes, and so unable to properly communicate, apart from the times the film ignores that idea.

Val and Aqua decide they want to see what the outside world looks like, it’s not really a case of “We must escape these horrendous humans” but a situation where “Oh, those trees look nice, let’s go and have a look”, so there’s no real urgency to the narrative, although factory workers Randy Quaid and a couple of others are tasked with tracking them down, and also along for the ride is a “Crimebuster Deluxe” robot who overhears Quaid’s mission and decides to take it upon himself to track them all down.

Crimebuster is easily the best thing about the movie, looking like a cross between a rather portly Dalek and a large American car, he’s voiced by Ron Gans in a delightfully melodramatic manner, often pompously declaring how amazing he is and how important his role in proceedings are, uttering at one point “I cannot rest, it is my duty to make the world safe for democracy”. He’s also hilariously rubbish too, at one point for some unknown reason he suspects a tree stump is a criminal and so blows it up, and he’s initially easily fooled when he tracks down Val, Aqua and Catskill who persuade him they’re actually bushbots (ie Gardening robots) but when he realises they’re lying he arrests them, and as they await the real police to take them away he plays “a brief musical interlude” in a funny but out of character move given his normally murderous manner.

I’m getting ahead of myself a bit though as long before that happens Val, Aqua and Catskill just stumble around a local forest and most of the attempts at humour come from the way they interpret the world, using embarrassingly dated computer speak to do so. This includes discussion of the nature of God, where Val suggests “God is an irrational unknown variable which humans associate with the value judgement known as goodness”, and most of the rest of their dialogue is as inanely unfunny as that, initially at least as though they’re only out and about in nature for a couple of days they slowly become more human over that time.

Part of the reason for that is after crashing the car they ran off in they build a “Spare parts carrier portable power tool”, which is essentially a (admittedly quite cute) small baby robot that they name Phil, and which they become more and more attached to over time as the duo learn what it is to be a parent. These scenes are painfully saccharine and often point blank patronising, with both Val and Aqua coming out with the kind of nonsense that you’ll find yourself surprised the actors didn’t refuse to say, though at least there is some levity as Catskill continues to do his horrible stand up act as they wander about the woods.

Rather oddly Val talks a lot of bollocks too, like how after he is mauled by a bear he insists it was a camel (which is even less funny than I’ve made it sound), and it becomes rather repugnant when once Aqua has repaired him Val tells her that his pleasure centre must be malfunctioning as it’s sending “unexplained random impulses. Strong impulses” in what’s one of the creepiest moments in cinema history. The romance between Val and Aqua really is bizarrely played out, and I can’t imagine anyone finding it even vaguely appealing as these two robots fall in love.

Throughout the movie the ending is signposted as if the director presumed it was a film that would only be watched by six year old’s as there’s repeated references to the robots energy packs, and how they need to replenish them, but thankfully they don’t, they’re tracked down and destroyed. Fine, fine, that’s wishful thinking and not the actual ending, though it looks like that’s going to be the case until there’s a final tacked on coda at the end.

I’ve possibly been a bit too harsh on the film as it did make me laugh a few times, but most of the time that was in a “I can’t believe I’m seeing this” kind of way. Crimebuster is the only creation that generates genuine laughs (and his blowing up a party at one point is absurdly hilarious), but it’s weird to see Andy Kaufman in a role where most of his lines are bland and the let’s just speak in a robotic fashion gag runs out of steam about five minutes after it was introduced, which is a problem when the film relies on it for its entire running time.

It’s impossible to recommend this film to anyone expecting a decent comedy but at the same time I’m glad I’ve seen this big old ball of weirdness. It’s certainly a well intentioned mess, the kind of film where they thought they’d made something funny and sweet, and perhaps the original cut was a little more effective at doing that. Given that it was only released on blu-ray this year suggests a directors cut is extremely unlikely and so we’ll probably never know, but this cut is at the very least still a movie that will surprise and confuse you, and if you’re in the mood for such a thing than Heartbeeps might well entertain.

★★

Alex Finch.
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Related Link:
An oddly terrible trailer for the film introduced by Catskill and which barely features Andy Kaufman and Bernadette Peters is on youtube here.

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