Batman & Robin

A review of 'Batman & Robin,' directed by Joel Schumacher, starring George Clooney, Chris O'Donnell, Uma Thurman, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Alicia Silverstone, reviewed by Robin Dougherty.

Topics: George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Movies,

holy creative breakdown, Batman!

Instead of berating Joel Schumacher for spending, by some reports, upwards of $1.5 million per minute to deliver the summer’s most inert movie sequel, let’s stop for a minute and try to figure out what the director thought he was up to.

There’s something almost maniacally heroic about packaging the fourth sequel of a superhero action series without resorting to the old standbys of good writing, capable acting or inspired directing. With “Batman & Robin,” Schumacher has daringly thrown tradition to the wind, proffering instead a vision of Entertainment as a huge computer screen on which little blips — machines, superheroes, particles of light — vie for screen time.

OK, now here’s the tsk-tsking.

You won’t find any writing, acting or directing to speak of in “Batman & Robin,” the most sentimental of the Batman movies and the second directed by Schumacher (in between his film versions of John Grisham thrillers “The Client” and “A Time To Kill”). With George Clooney taking over the Bat-cape from Val Kilmer, the franchise may be safe. Lost beneath the overproduced fight scenes, the rubber nippled Clooney doesn’t really get a chance to embarrass himself, much less act. But the Bat-thrills are long gone. Worse, Kilmer’s recent career path — duds like “The Saint” and the bona fide turkey “The Island of Doctor Moreau” — seems downright glorious compared to any cachet the swoon-provoking “ER” actor is going to take away from this bomb.

But, then, what’s art compared to the sale of action figures?

In fact, when your last Batman movie was 1995′s highest grossing film, why clutter the next one with characters at all? It’s much easier to make a two-hour tableau in which human beings are reduced to toy status by an overwrought production scheme. Schumacher’s puppets — Batman, Robin, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy and the new Batgirl — cavort in a universe of industrial light and no magic. They’re dwarfed by a be-statued Gotham that is itself reduced to a computer-generated collection of cavities, shadows and multi-plane camera moves. Spatial relationships be damned. Watching the frenetic choreography of the fight and chase scenes — Batman and villains sliding down a dinosaur tail in a museum’s antiquities wing or racing up the outstretched arms and fingers of a Titan-like statue — it’s difficult to see what’s going on.



In fact, one of the film’s best jokes is obfuscated by the inept direction. When Batman and Robin (Chris O’Donnell) go after Mr. Freeze, they slip and slide on the icy surface the villain’s created on the museum floor. Then, recalling their vast arsenal of nifty gadgets, they press buttons on their heels and out pop ice skates on their boots. Clever, huh? I nearly missed it and only caught on when I remembered someone describing the scene to me beforehand.

Indeed, “Batman & Robin” is a movie made by machines for other machines to watch. If there are any humans out there still interested, here’s a checklist of Bat-villains and heroes.

Lucking out in the nifty costume department is Alicia Silverstone’s Batgirl. Despite the tortured way the film introduces her (she’s butler Alfred’s daffy schoolgirl niece whose parents’ death provoked her new hobby of motorcycle racing). With her charisma, Silverstone would probably make a fine addition if human-scale actions ever find their way back into the Bat-story.

Lost amid all the flashiness of the updated Batmobile (and Robin’s Redbird motorcycle) are cameos by John Glover, Coolio, Vivica A. Fox and supermodel Vendela K. Thommessen. Elle MacPherson, as Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend, is, well, just lost.

The character most in search of better one-liners is Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy. As the only actor who actually compels your attention, she plays the villainess as a pencil-thin Mae West in Marie Antoinette hairdos. (Her alter ego, scientist Pamela Isley, is a demure librarian nursing a revenge fantasy.) She’s saddled with verbal clichis — from “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature” to “The day of reckoning is coming.” Ted Baxter could write better copy. But could he deliver them with even a fraction of Thurman’s panache? Nah. Let’s give this villainess her own series.

As for you Arnold Schwarzenegger fans — sorry. As Mr. Freeze, a scientist turned villain when he fell into a vat of cryogenic liquid, Arnold looks like, alternately, the Tin Man, the Terminator and the chrome parts of a gargantuan, walking motorcycle. Under all that silver, his eyes are a ghastly red. But the real crime is that Schwarzenegger’s exuberance is pinned down. He’s like a moth squashed by an 18-wheeler. He’s also paralyzed by amazingly inert dialogue. How many lame jokes about cold can you fit into two hours? Buy a ticket and find out.

In fact, let’s just line up and put our cash into Schumacher’s pockets.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. | ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Robin Dougherty is a frequent contributor to Salon. She is a freelance writer who lives in Miami Beach.

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