By premise alone, the man/robot buddy dramedy “Brian and Charles” may remind some viewers of “Finch,” Apple TV Plus’s similarly themed 2021 movie about the relationship between a lonely engineer (Tom Hanks) and the high-tech android companion (voice of Caleb Landry Jones) who helps him resolve his daddy issues. But this appealing if slight fable from director Jim Archer and writers David Earl and Chris Hayward (expanding on their 2017 short by the same name) tugs on a different set of heartstrings. Subbing in rural Wales for “Finch’s” post-apocalyptic America, “Brian and Charles” centers on Brian (Earl), a lonely tinkerer who builds things like a flying cuckoo clock, for reasons that make sense to no one but himself.
When the protagonist mutters, early in the film, that it might “be nice to have an extra pair of hands around,” he has hit on an invention that might actually be of use: a friend. (“Brian and Charles” is framed as a documentary, with an unseen film crew that records Brian’s every waking move, a la “The Office,” and to whom the film’s twee running commentary is directed.) Soon enough – 72 hours later for Brian, barely 10 minutes for us viewers – on a night of thunder and flashing lightning, Brian has his Frankenstein moment: His low-tech trash-bot Charles (Hayward) rises from the slab, so to speak, resembling a guy in a Halloween costume fashioned from junk, with the shell of a washing machine for a chest and a balding, gray-haired and bespectacled mannequin head on top that makes him look like Larry David. To make Charles more lifelike, presumably, Brian has dressed him up in a bow tie, beige cardigan and giant white dress shirt that looks like it was stitched together from old bedsheets.
In other words, “Ex Machina” this is not.
“Brian and Charles” is more of a fractured fantasia than a sci-fi adventure, and its appeal is in direct proportion to your appreciation for the humorous irony of such things as Brian’s remark, to the camera, that “I was looking for metal in one of these piles of things, and I found a metal detector.” (I groaned slightly. Your mileage may vary.)
The dynamic between this odd couple starts off simple: It’s that of a pet owner and his overeager Labrador retriever – albeit one who speaks English. Gradually, the relationship evolves to become more familial. Eventually, Charles begins acting like a bratty teenager mouthing off to his “father,” demanding a trip to Honolulu after seeing a show about Hawaii on the television. Brian says no; he won’t even allow Charles to ride into town with him, fearing that the village thug Eddie (Jamie Michie), who once stole Brian’s garden gnome, will make trouble. Only Hazel (Louise Brealey), the pretty object of Brian’s schoolboy crush, is allowed to meet Charles.
Brian’s fears aren’t misplaced. And as the film progresses into its sweet, almost saccharine, love story, the filmmakers fold in other familiar themes: learning to stand up to bullies and letting go of the person – er, thing – you love.
Though told with a childlike directness, “Brian and Charles” is not exactly a kid’s movie, and its climax is a bit dark, involving the threat of Charles being consigned to Eddie’s bonfire, out of spite. Like Charles himself (and maybe Brian, too), it’s an odd hodgepodge of a story: a sweet, eccentric misfit, just waiting for someone to find it, and love it, despite its flaws.
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