I’ve always liked Andy Kaufman. Even before the resurgence in interest after Man on the Moon, I remember liking the Latka character and some of the crazy stuff he managed to pull on Fridays. He made few movies, including Marty Feldman’s memorable monk movie, In God We Tru$t. The other one was this peculiarity, where Andy and Bernadette Peters play two robots who fall in love and escape the factory to form a family. Randy Quaid plays one of the workers at the factory tasked with bringing them back. Sadly this flop put a kibosh on the Tony Clifton movie Andy was doing.
I remember loving Heartbeeps as a kid, but now my first thought is “I hope Andy really needed the money.” He plays a variant of his Latka character, the familiar high-pitched voice and innocence, but instead of bizarre foreign customs he spouts stuff like “my pleasure center is malfunctioning!” and “this is very illogical and against the litany of robots.” He does the best that he can with a script that looks like it was written over a weekend on a cocaine binge after being given the concept by a producer’s 13-year old kid.
Heartbeeps begins with two workers in a robot factory bringing a broken model to a storage area. The robot is named Val and looks a lot like an aluminized version of Andy Kaufman, and sure enough it’s him in make-up. They drop him off next to a robot named Aqua (Bernadette Peters), and the two begin talking in that light mockery of stereotypical date talk. He’s a companionship model with special files in stocks and bonds, especially in lumber commodities. She’s a garden party conversationalist, for real- a Southern belle-bot specialized in chit-chat at parties. They’re looking out a window in the factory at the mountains and trees, and when a lightning storm breaks, they clutch each others’ hands. I was expecting the lightning to damage their circuits or imbue them with life, but apparently they are just sufficiently advanced to have emotions. Randy Quaid says along the way that they have “more circuits than we know what to do with,” so let’s assume they’ve achieved artificial intelligence, a term that would have induced head-scratching when the movie came out.
The robot we’re introduced to first is the Crimebuster Deluxe, a robot tank with flamethrowers and machine guns, who talks sort of like the guy who did toy commercials back in the 80’s, or the trailer voice guy nowadays. He’s sort of a Dirty Harry-bot, only substantially less funny. Most of the humor in this movie comes from a robot doing human things and saying them with goofy high-tech words like circuits and sensors. Jokes include him smelling a skunk, mistaking a bunny and a ’57 T-bird for criminals and blowing them up, and so on. He’s in the shop for repairs for over-reacting, like torching a granny pushing a baby carriage on the shooting range.
Val and Aqua decide to escape, along with Catskill the comic-bot, because Val wants to examine the trees on the mountain they’ve been watching outside. Aqua likes the beautiful sunset and goes with him. They steal a repair truck and build a little robot they name Philco, Phil for short, to tow a wagon full of spare parts for the trip. He’s their baby-bot, and sort of looks like Johnny 5 from Short Circuit, which would come out 5 years later.
The best joke happens when they disguise themselves as trees to sneak past the Crimebuster, and confuse his logic circuits by saying that robots can’t be criminals. A marvel of writing there. He tells them to wait for the authorities, and starts playing the “Girl from Ipanema” muzak, also used as the elevator scene in The Blues Brothers.
We are a hedge. Move along.
Director Allan Arkush, who was also the man behind the horror that is Caddyshack II, gets his buddies Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov to cameo in a small party scene, but he doesn’t seem to take any advice from those very funny filmmakers. He worked on Rock ‘n Roll High School, but the uncredited work by Joe Dante and Jerry Zucker is probably what we remember best. The robots sneak into the party and use their skills to serve canapés and entertain the guests. Catskill tells horrible jokes at the party and throughout the film, puffing his fake cigar. He’s the best design, and just looks funny. Later they make the excuse that he was telling “low power jokes” to save power, but I think the writers were more amused by the idea of a Henny Youngman-bot than I was.
Crimebuster shows up to break up the party, and Paul Bartel gets a line befitting his usually snooty character. I barely recognized his wife Mary Woronov, who played the evil nurse in Rock ‘n Roll High School, but she’s the hostess, playing the California swinger type that they’ll kill in their best movie, Eating Raoul. They’re the high point of the movie. Bernadette and Andy aren’t given anything to work with, and can barely emote in their plastic masks.
From there they end up at a junk yard looking for spare batteries, and they meet a cute nerdy couple. One thing the film manages is to make the people mostly uncaring and cold; even the nerds are dispassionate when Crimebuster shows up, guns blazing. They jump on his back and disable him quickly, and are more excited about his circuit board than anything else. They even have a pet raccoon which covers its eyes during the very short battle. If only they had a chimp to do it as well, oh what hijinks we would have. Maybe they’re not uncaring, maybe they just don’t give a shit about their performance in a movie they know will be sickening to endure.
Val and Aqua get attached to Philco and want him to be the best he can be, so they want to program him for a purpose. The nerds tell them they have to go back to the factory for that, and they start on the trip- except their batteries are almost empty. Philco can’t make it, so Catskill, in a sacrificial act for the only thing that likes his jokes, swaps batteries with him. The Jewish comic-bot becomes Jesus.
The last robot family trudges toward the factory, but Val and Aqua’s batteries run down before they can make it, and they are frozen in a touching pose when they are picked up by Randy Quaid, thrown in the back of a truck and sent for “circuit wash” so they’ll be good little robots.
But lo and behold, after a flash-forward, we find out that they “never were quite right.” and were junked. So they do get to live happily ever after, in nerd heaven. Or do they… of course Crimebuster is back on the loose as well.
Wow, was this painful to watch again. Us nerdy, robot-hungry kids would watch any crap on HBO back in the 80’s, and this was in heavy rotation. The jokes just aren’t very funny, and seeing two robots walk through the woods while bickering in technologized spoofs of stereotypical relationship banter is pretty excruciating, even for a piddly 75 minutes. Even when you adore the cast, and are the “corny joke guy” among friends, Catskill’s jokes are painfully unfunny, except when he veers into insult comedy at the party. As a kid’s movie it’s not that bad, but nowadays even a piece of crap like Transformers will be better than this, which may actually be considered child abuse in some states. My idea of a remake? A movie version of Robotron: 2084 where we exterminate robot clones of these, and save the last human family.
Beers Required to Enjoy: 6
Quotability Rating: Zilch
Cheese Factor: High
Could it be made today? Bicentennial Man was close
Gratuitous Boobs: Not even robo-boobies.
High Points: Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov slumming.
Low Points: Everything else
If you must buy it, buy it here.