‘Brian and Charles’ Is the Charming Cure for the Summer Blockbuster Epidemic

‘Brian and Charles’ Is the Charming Cure for the Summer Blockbuster Epidemic

This summer’s surprise buddy comedy has arrived in British import Brian and Charles. Like a modern age Pinocchio or Frankenstein as if told by a tenderhearted jokester like Taika Waititi, its duo serves up a heartwarming story of friendship between two oddballs: one man, one machine.

The film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where its lighthearted charm fit alongside the most heralded crowd-pleasers about outsiders that have launched there, like Little Miss Sunshine or Napoleon Dynamite. While Brian and Charles didn’t make quite as much festival noise, it should be primed to follow in their comedy-counterprogramming footsteps. A modest-scale antidote to the bombast and bloat of summer entertainment spectacles, Brian and Charles brings more down-to-earth delights to the summer moviegoing season.

Expanding from their 2017 short film of the same name, the film reunites director Jim Archer with writer-stars David Earl and Chris Hayward, respectively playing Brian and his invention Charles. The film is set in a remote village in Wales, where sweet Brian lives alone and is mildly depressed. He’s kept busy only by his “inventions pantry” of electronic detritus and spare objects. In a fit of fancy, he decides to assemble a robot companion, resulting in another failure in a series of them. But on a stormy night, his creation comes to life and Brian finds more than he bargained for.

Assembled from stray parts like a mannequin head, a washing machine, and a glowing blue light for an eye, Charles is awkward both in his limited but curious worldview and his lurching physicality. Brian has designed him as a quintessential gentleman in a cardigan and bowtie, but in practicality, he is not so graceful, given his topheavy maladroit body that the film maximizes to comedic effect. Charles awakens with a primitive vocabulary and understanding of the world, but with a preternaturally inquisitive desire to learn and experience as much as life will offer his operating system. Temperamentally, Charles is half Short Circuit’s Johnny 5, half puppy; physically, he’s Jim Broadbent by way of Klaus Nomi.

But while Charles is hilarious because of the rigid, non-human expression that the film’s creators lend him, the filmmakers make him special by giving him a relatable emotional journey. Hayward gives an impressive vocal performance despite the character’s limitations, mining laughs and angst through a commitment to Charles’s mechanical expressiveness. You are more likely to find discernable human inflection in the average household device than in Charles, yet Hayward still achieves unexpected childlike humanity.

It’s smart that the film stays vague on the hows with which this droll, oversized mecha-Pinocchio is brought to life, keeping Brian and Charles’ friendship (and the uproarious trials of teaching the latter such everyday tasks as watching television and going to bed) its central focus. It’s not important that we understand what technical wizardry makes the low-fi Charles function. Instead, the film hinges on us seeing his urge to understand and be a part of human life. And how being Charles’ ambassador to the world affects the solitary, timid Brian.

As much as Hayward finds something believably human as a robot, Earl is touching when performing Brian’s struggle to express himself, lost in his own communication struggles. There are contradictory impulses in Brian to both be seen and to hide. He enjoys his loner status, yet welcomes the unseen documentary crew interviewing him at the start of the film; he has a romantic flirtation, but stalls. This immediately puts Brian and Charles’ interests at odds, leaving the film to marinate in the idyllic solitude of rural life conflicting with the desire to want something beyond the confines of one’s small slice of the world. What the film lacks in surprising plot developments, it instead offers up this rich core of emotional truth, along with its winning humor.

Brian himself is somewhat of an outsider in his small village, which fuels his protectiveness over the friend he has created. In this way, Brian and Charles’ relationship is as much parent-child as it is spiritual equals, creating a more complex portrait of friendship than you might expect from the film’s lowkey delivery. Charles’ questions about life serve as a mirror to Brian’s own anxieties; in the ways he protects Charles by omitting the uncomfortable or by keeping his existence a secret, Brian reveals his own hidden desires to protect himself. Of course, Brian’s fears prove to be true when Charles is immediately treated cruelly once he eventually encounters the townspeople.

“The film may be whimsical, but it remains grounded in a hard reality, where people struggle to understand the world around them and their place within it.”

The film may be whimsical, but it remains grounded in a hard reality, where people struggle to understand the world around them and their place within it. Ultimately Brian may be more of an outsider than the nonhuman Charles because Charles is more open to whatever the world has in store for him.

The film inhabits several genres at once—off-center comedy, mockumentary, science fiction—but never leans too far into any one of them. It’s a sophisticated approach with an effectively delicate touch, perhaps one that is self aware and wisely avoidant of the ways that this story could quickly become cloyingly saccharine.

Similarly, it eschews obvious takes on modern personified gadgetry. Charles isn’t Siri with sentience; the film isn’t interested in that kind of high concept pretension. Instead, it has something more subtle to say about how modern innovations that replace human interactions might help us to let go of our defenses rather than the prevailing presumption that they build more.

Brian and Charles is a rare type of comedy, one that earns its laughs and emotional uplifts with laidback confidence and insight. It’s a humble effort, one all the more valuable as the summer offers louder and less emotionally fulfilling genre exercises than this.

Brian and Charles satisfies on its own terms, and therefore stands in sharp contrast to the recent disappointments of larger scale films like Jurassic World: Dominion and Lightyear. But this also primes it to become the kind of quintessential counterprogramming that can break out in a busy summer season, especially for audiences seeking out something a little more real. In Brian and Charles, audiences will get artificial intelligence and authentic friendship.

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Last Update: Wed, 15 Jun 22 21:34:09