Heartbeeps (1981) -**
Nobody ever really knew what to make of Andy Kaufman. That was the whole point. Even in his closest approach to mainstream palatability, playing Latka Gravas on “Taxi” for five years, he was an enigma— his character was an immigrant with no discernable country of origin, and his performance was a broadly caricatured stereotype of no recognizable ethnicity. Things only got weirder outside the banal oasis of prime-time sitcom television, too. Kaufman occasionally performed incognito as his own opening act, posing as a Las Vegas lounge singer by the name of Tony Clifton, in which guise he would attempt to pick fights with both the audience and his headlining alter-ego. He and underground director Johnny Legend staged a bizarre breakfast interview between Kaufman and retired professional wrestler Fred Blassie, filmed the encounter, and cut an hour’s worth of the footage into My Breakfast with Blassie, which Legend released as a parody of My Dinner with Andre. It’s never been entirely clear to what extent Blassie was in on the gag. Kaufman launched a pro-wrestling career of his own lasting some three years, but insisted upon grappling only with women for most of that time— and generally women with no formal training, at that! His stage shows and appearances on television programs like “Fridays” and “Saturday Night Live” rarely featured anything that we Earthlings would recognize as jokes, although they were generally billed as either sketch or stand-up comedy. And through it all, Andy Kaufman was never, ever funny. That, so far as it’s possible to determine now, was also the whole point. Kaufman lived his entire public life as one big absurdist performance art project; the world was his straight man, and to all appearances, he was out to baffle, not to entertain. If you were entertained, it would not be directly by anything Kaufman did or said, but rather by the bafflement of those among your fellow spectators who hadn’t yet given up trying to get the joke. That being the case, you kind of have to question his motives for appearing in Heartbeeps. So terrible and misbegotten was this sci-fi romantic comedy from Rock ‘n’ Roll High School director Allan Arkush that Kaufman apologized for appearing in it on “Late Night with David Letterman,” and claimed (never letting on that he was anything less than serious, naturally) to be consulting with his lawyer about the possibility of reimbursing everyone who bought a ticket to it out of his own pocket. Given, again, that never being funny was the central technique of Kaufman’s comedy, might it be that he had always recognized Heartbeeps for the turd that it was, and that he took on the lead role as yet one more elaborate prank on the culture-consuming public?
This is the kind of movie where you have to look hard for something to appreciate, so let me start out by drawing attention to Heartbeeps’ charmingly restrained notion of futurism. Things in this world look and function much the way they did in 1981, except that there are robots all over the place. A lot of these droids serve practical functions, working in factories, keeping the peace, or whatever, but others are designed to provide various sorts of artificial companionship to their human owners. The Valcom model is configured for valet service; the Aquacom model is programmed with a repertoire of conversational skills formulated to help men “think of themselves as interesting, intelligent, and virile;” the somewhat more primitive Catskill model does pretty much nothing except tell jokes. Sometimes these complex machines break down, of course, and that’s where Charlie (Randy Quaid, from The Wraith and Independence Day) and Max (Kenneth McMillan, of Salem’s Lot and The Stepford Wives) come in. These two work in the warehouse for a robot repair company, taking deliveries of damaged or defective droids, and keeping track of them until such time as the mechanics get around to them. One day, Charlie and Max receive one each of the aforementioned models— Valcom 17485 (Kaufman, whom we last saw shooting up the St. Patrick’s Day parade in God Told Me To), Aquacom 89045 (Bernadette Peters, later to appear in a made-for-TV version of The Odyssey), and Catskill 55602 (a rather crude puppet with the voice of John Carter, from Alligator and The Glove). All three robots are exhibiting the same unusual fault; they’re behaving as if they have wills of their own, disregarding direction from their owners and spontaneously performing all manner of unauthorized actions. Now you might think that would be cause for a few extraordinary security precautions around the warehouse, but evidently you’d be mistaken. Either that or Charlie and Max have no more capacity for independent thought than their mechanical charges are supposed to.
Whatever the reason for their lax handling, Val, Aqua, and Catskill (as they take to calling each other) get stashed close enough together to initiate conversation, and they’re left unsupervised to chat amiably all day long— which, after all, is what they were programmed to do. The thing is, the mysterious malfunction responsible for the droids’ autonomy has also left them capable of experiencing human-like emotions. In Val’s case, Aqua makes him feel interesting, intelligent, and virile, with the result that the two of them are making goo-goo optics at each other come nightfall. Eventually, Val asks Aqua out on what presumably passes for a date among robots, inviting her to help him “gather information” on the trees which are visible just below the horizon from their perch in the warehouse. (What a warehouse for malfunctioning robots needs with a gargantuan picture window and gorgeous western exposure is one of this movie’s enduring minor mysteries.) Catskill asks to tag along (or comes as close to asking as can be managed with no means of communication other than terrible Borsht Belt one-liners), and the next thing we know, the three droids are joyriding around the countryside in a stolen delivery van. Val is an atrocious driver, however, and he wipes out the van long before they reach the grove they ostensibly meant to study. Undeterred, Val and Aqua ransack the van’s cargo compartment to amass a goodly stock of spare parts, cannibalize everything left over into a little transport drone that Aqua dubs “Phil,” and continue on foot (or on caterpillar tread in Catskill’s case).
Yes, good call. Heartbeeps is indeed setting up Val and Aqua not merely as each other’s love interests, but as parental figures for Phil as well. Phil, meanwhile, is as awful a thing as any supposedly adorable child who might have been cast had the filmmakers gone that route. Start by picturing Number 5 from the Short Circuit movies. Now cross him with VINCENT from The Black Hole, shrink him to the size of a moped, and have him speak in R2-D2-like torrents of beeps. Finally, imagine that the firm commissioned to build the prop for the movie was Fisher-Price. That’s Phil for you. It’s a terrible disappointment when he isn’t smashed to shit by the grizzly bear who lives in the cave where the robots attempt to rest up after a long day of amateur botany, but some consolation may be drawn from the fact that the bear does bust up Val a little before it’s scared off by a passing helicopter. (Clearly this isn’t a William Girdler grizzly we’re dealing with here…)
Aboard that chopper, incidentally, are Charlie and Max, whose boss (Richard B. Schull, of Sssssss and The Pack) is furious at them for allowing three of the robots to wander out of the warehouse on their shift. They don’t happen to spot the escapees on this pass, but they’ll be spending the bulk of their time over the next several days continuing the hunt in one way or another. Meanwhile, yet a fourth malfunctioning robot— a massively armed police drone called Crimebuster 00719— overhears the humans in the repair shop discussing Val, Aqua, and Catskill’s vanishing act, and charges off to bring the fugitives to justice. The robots’ increasingly unmotivated wanderings carry them first into the city, where they crash a party being thrown by Paul Bartel (of Piranha and Chopping Mall) and Mary Woronov (from Sugar Cookies and Death Race 2000), and then to a colossal junkyard where the proprietors (Melanie Mayron and Christopher Guest) advise them that Phil will require a proper function in order to lead a fulfilling existence. That means going back to the shop (which ought to make Charlie, Max, and their boss happy, anyway), but Val, Aqua, and Phil are all running dangerously low on power, and Crimebuster 00719 might be even more singleminded than an ED-209.
Crimebuster 00719 is easily my favorite thing about Heartbeeps, and not just because his presence in the film introduces some triflingly remote possibility that at least one of the protagonists will wind up blasted to tiny bits by the time the credits roll. The demented mechanical cop is actually a halfway amusing parody of the old “unstoppable robot killing machine” premise, even if Arkush and writer John Hill annoyingly lack the nerve to follow through on Crimebuster’s dogged efforts to protect its beat against the scourge of cute and inoffensive woodland critters. Also, it looks exactly like a cross between a Dalek and a 1975 Buick Riviera— which, as I’m sure you can imagine, led the audience to break out into giddy choruses of “Exterminate! Exterminate!” whenever Crimebuster rolled into view at B-Fest 2010.
Back at the beginning of the review, I raised the question of whether Andy Kaufman recognized going in that Heartbeeps was destined for failure. It would not have taken an exceptionally perceptive person to make that prediction. Except for Crimebuster 00719’s scenes and the all-too-brief moments when Paul Bartel is on the screen, this movie has very, very little going for it. Kaufman and a thoroughly de-sexed Bernadette Peters simply wander around not being funny for an hour and a quarter in shockingly poor robot makeup by Stan Winston, who was obviously having a succession of off-days while Heartbeeps was in production. Phil would have been a game-changer in the Nauseating Cute-Bot arms race of the 1980’s, had anybody bothered to see the film, ushering all the previous spawn of R2-D2 into premature obsolescence as decisively as HMS Warrior closed the book on the wooden-hulled ship of the line. And Catskill 55602, to the surprise of absolutely no one, I’m sure, is so horrifyingly unfunny that he’d have made a serviceable Eleventh Plague of the Pharaoh in the event that one more had proven necessary. What is surprising about Catskill, however, is that he figures in a scene suggesting that Kaufman wasn’t the only one who might have been approaching Heartbeeps as a prank on the audience. As I said, the robots are running very low on power as the movie nears its conclusion, all of them operating in the range of 3-4%. All, that is, except for Catskill, who mysteriously still has a 43% charge in his power module. In what I’m sure we’re supposed to take as a touching gesture of self-sacrifice, Catskill switches power units with Phil, enabling Val and Aqua’s “baby” a fighting chance to reach the repair shop and receive his function programming. After Catskill runs down, Val sorts through the dormant droid’s processor log in the hope of finding a reason for his illogical behavior, but finds instead the secret behind Catskill’s unexpectedly great energy reserves: “Apparently he was telling low-power jokes.” It almost makes the whole movie— or at least Catskill’s share of it— worthwhile. John Hill spends virtually the entire running time tormenting the audience with one miserable dud one-liner after another from the robot comedian, only to turn around and reveal that it’s all been a setup for the one halfway successful joke Heartbeeps has to its name. And now that I’ve given the game away, you can all skip this one, and devote those 79 minutes to something more rewarding. You’re quite welcome.