24 Lies a Second: Artificial Incredulity

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Artificial Incredulity

Counterprogramming can take some very odd shapes, and none odder than Brian and Charles (directed by Jim Archer), which has somehow managed to weave a way through a crowded field (resurrected dinosaurs, the king of rock and roll, progressive Norse gods, etc) and find its way onto a few UK screens (apparently it had some sort of US release earlier in the summer).

Moving spirit behind this project, one suspects, is co-writer and star David Earl, who I must confess I wasn't really aware of prior to seeing the trailer for this film. Nevertheless, he has been knocking about the middle-tiers of UK comedy for a while, from the look of his Wikipedia page, often in the vicinity of Ricky Gervais. Even if you hadn't bothered to do the research, you might well have been able to work this out for yourself, given that Brian and Charles is framed as a fly-on-the-wall mockumentary with Earl playing its awkwardly self-conscious participant.

However, rather than The Office, this is more like The Cowshed: Earl plays Brian, apparently a variation on a long-established character of his. Brian lives in a farmhouse in a remote part of Wales, where – after a personal crisis of some sort – he has decided to reinvent himself as an inventor. Not an inventor of anything that you might actually want to own, of course – amongst the products of his fertile, or possible furtive, imagination are such things as the egg belt (a belt just for carrying eggs in) and the pine cone bag (it's a bag with pine cones glued to it). There is pathos in abundance here, and that awkward sense of uncertainty as to whether we really want to be laughing at someone as clearly fragile as Brian.

However, one day things change: Brian hits upon the idea of building a robot to help out around the house. So he retires to his inventing workshop (in the cowshed, of course), and emerges some time later having incorporated such available ephemera as a washing machine and a mannequin head into his latest masterpiece. When Brian eventually figures out how to switch it on, the robot (played by co-writer Chris Hayward) initially proves skittish, but eventually calms down, learns to make sense of the world around it (by reading the dictionary), and takes the name of Charles Petrescu.

Brian is bright enough to realise his eccentric and rather excitable creation will cause a stir should he take it down the village, where he is already having problems with a local bully (Jamie Michie), but making Charles understand that is hardly straightforward. On the other hand, Charles does sterling work in impelling Brian towards actually doing something about the not-quite-a-relationship he has with another local (Louise Brealey). But what will happen when someone learns that Charles exists?

As I suggested, this is really a very odd film – not necessarily in a bad way, because it has considerable charm and is strangely endearing, and there are some very funny moments in it. But it is composed of a very odd mixture of ingredients, that one really wouldn't expect to work together. The fact that the film is as effective (and indeed as functional) as it is must therefore be some kind of achievement.

This is apparently an expanded version of a short film made by the same creators a few years ago – I haven't seen it, but I feel I have a very good idea of exactly what it's like: presumably it's exactly the same as the feature film, but with all the elements of a (relatively) more dramatic plotline missing. I would imagine that as a result it's a lot less tonally uneven – the full-length Brian and Charles often plays rather like a mash-up between the sitcom Metal Mickey and a heavyweight thriller like Dead Man's Shoes (or maybe even a folk-horror movie).

Brian and Charles is silly. Lots of films these days are, of course, but Brian and Charles is silly in the same specific way as a lot of children's TV is – it doesn't even pretend to engage with the real world. It's fantastical and illogical like that kind of juvenile story is – a man who is, on the face of it, really not very bright or skilled, manages to build a functioning, sentient robot in his shed. It's a ludicrous idea, but one that the film never questions or even acknowledges the implausibility of. There are lots of other bits of silliness scattered throughout – Brian's fixation on cabbages, for instance – and a general detachment from reality (no-one even suggests involving the police as the thriller storyline escalates).

And yet, as I say, there is also a genuine vein of darkness running through the film – not just in the plotline about Brian being menaced by the local hard-case, though of course there is tension and disquiet there. Even before this becomes prominent, there is a real sense of quiet desperation threaded through the film: lonely people living lives which were not the ones they would have chosen for themselves, scrabbling to make the best of what they have. It's a strange, bittersweet atmosphere for a film about an absurd, unbelievable robot and its creator.

Brian and Charles has managed to land a PG certificate in the UK, which is pretty rare these days – virtually anything that isn't a kids' film or something very gentle indeed usually winds up with a 12. It just reinforces my impression that this film plays like something you could take your children to see with a fairly clear conscience. The story is simple and the only metaphor the co-spousal unit and I could find in it was a fairly obvious one about the perils and challenges of raising a child and then accepting when he or she eventually needs to be independent. Kids will probably enjoy the ridiculousness of Charles the robot and his domestic situation, and may even be gripped by the storyline – but the film's mixture of darkness and mawkishness is a very odd choice for a piece of family entertainment. Nevertheless, Brian and Charles doesn't really make sense as anything else.

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