Brian and Charles Review: An Oddball Comedy About a Lonely Welsh Inventor and His Giant Robot Friend

A sweetly eccentric beardo who lives by himself in a stone cottage on a Snowdonia farm track some 20 miles west of Cardiff, Brian (David Earl) has all but given up on having any sort of human connection. “I was very low,” he confesses to the “Office”-like documentary crew who follow his every move (they’re presumably shooting a project about the weirdest people in Wales, which would at least make a little more sense than a 200-hour film about a Scranton paper company), but the unseen man behind the camera never asks Brian to elaborate on his sadness. Neither does the director of the actual movie that Brian is in, an oddball comedy that’s charmingly slight in some places, slightly charming in others, and seldom interested in digging more than a few millimeters below the surface.

Be that as it may, Brian still had to do something to lift himself up! So he resorted to the same thing that a lot of folks did when the pandemic isolated them from the rest of the world: He began making stuff. Of course, Brian isn’t really a sourdough starter kind of guy, even if his vibe suggests “Doc Brown as a contestant on ‘The Great British Bake Off.’” The stuff he makes is more along the lines of, say, a messenger bag armored with pinecones, an egg belt (that’s obviously a leather belt with little pockets that hold Brian’s eggs), and a seven-foot-tall robot with a washing machine for a body and a decapitated mannequin for a head. Does it work? Alas, no, true companionship might be as hard to build as it is to find. “You can’t have everything,” Brian surmises. “That’s just greedy.”

But then — faster than you can say “it’s alive!” — Brian hears something rustling around the back one dark and stormy night. The massive friend that he’s Frankensteined together has come online, he calls himself Charles Petrescu, and he really, really loves cabbage (not for its nutrients so much as its companionship). Maybe that documentary crew isn’t wasting its time after all. Maybe Brian won’t have to be as lonely as he imagined.

Based on his short of the same name, Jim Archer’s broadly winning “Brian and Charles” springs to life in tandem with the second of its title characters, as Charles (Chris Hayward inside a cardboard box covered by a giant brown cardigan) is so delightful it almost doesn’t matter that Earl and Hayward’s script doesn’t come up with anything particularly clever to do with him. He looks like a cross between Jim Broadbent and something the evil kid from “Toy Story” might have designed in his spare time — his blood-red hand and cold blue camera eye can be a bit unnerving — but Charles’ bowtie and the way he kind of dances in place when he talks does enough to dilute any suspicions of malevolence.

The real source of the robot’s magic, however, is his voice, which I can only describe as Imperfect Paul (essentially the voice created for Stephen Hawking if it were underscored with a clumsy hint of sweetness).

Brian isn’t particularly shocked to discover that he’s built a sentient android in his garage — “It took me 72 hours,” he boasts to the camera, as if it’s the longest he’s ever spent on anything in his life — but he’s still afraid of what other people might think. No matter, this movie is at its best when Brian and Charles are just enjoying the pleasure of each other’s company around the cottage, as Earl and Hayward earn all sorts of light chuckles from these characters they’ve honed together over the years. It’s fun just hearing Charles say his name, or declare himself “prince of the dartboard” while Brian smiles proudly at the robot’s latest bulls-eye. The idea of a tank-shaped grandpa would be strong enough to carry this movie on its own, but Charles’ child-like curiosity only makes him all the more endearing.

The dynamic between he and his maker is hard to pin down (one minute Brian and Charles are like a father and his overgrown toddler, the next like a son and his senile old man), but the socially awkward inventor and his new best friend remain perfect foils for one another no matter how their connection might crinkle. While Brian has retreated into his own world, Charles is absolutely itching to discover what exists beyond the farm — upon learning about Honolulu, he makes a hula skirt out of sheet metal and starts walking to Hawaii. It isn’t long before the tension between those conflicting desires threatens to split Brian and Charles apart and suck the joy out of the adventure that bears their names.

A classic example of a film that successfully captures the essence of the short that inspired it, but never quite figures out how to expand that kernel of an idea into a feature, “Brian and Charles” loses steam whenever it leaves the farm. Nice as it is that Charles gives Brian the confidence required to flirt with the (too) similarly introverted girl next door, his romance with Hazel (Louise Brealey) is never afforded the same texture as his bond with his robot bestie.

The script’s animatronic plotting is even harder to swallow when it comes to the story’s antagonist, a bullying neighbor (Jamie Michie) who kidnaps Charles because, well, something has to happen. Watching the movie root around for the scraps of real conflict reminded me of an off-handed anecdote Brian shares about searching for metal in a local junkyard only to dig up a rusty old metal detector.

It’s a shame that “Brian and Charles” plays things safe, as Archer’s naturally irreverent debut only becomes easier to invest in during its more outlandish moments. I struggled to believe that Brian was the subject of a documentary (Archer’s half-baked approach to the handheld mockumentary of it all doesn’t help, even if allows his film to be prettier and more wistful than its premise might suggest), but I had no trouble believing that Charles was alive, or that Brian might have a few tricks up his sleeve to help him stay that way.

As Brian himself would say: “If you don’t try things, you don’t succeed, do you? You just have to keep trying.”

Grade: B-

Focus Features will release “Brian and Charles” in theaters on Friday, June 17.

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