I've become convinced that Robin Williams has an on/off switch hidden somewhere on that furry body of his. When it's flipped up, we get the scattergun genius of HBO stand-up specials and "The Fisher King," a man who takes our 500-channel media overload upon himself and suffers brilliantly for it. When the switch is off -- when he's acting -- Williams is thin-lipped, repressed, sad-eyed. Perhaps it's all those jokes he knows he can't make, but a serious role chastens him, and he wants us to know it.
Williams has been acting especially chaste lately, what with the flawed antiheroes of "Insomnia," "One Hour Photo," and now "The Final Cut." The star is obviously casting about for a new direction -- commendable in light of the just plain wet "Jakob the Liar" and "Patch Adams" -- but I'm not sure that shutting down his central nervous system is the answer. In any event, "Final Cut" is easily the least of his recent films.
In the way that "One Hour Photo" was a character study masquerading as (and sold as) a horror movie, "Cut" is a character study in the guise of a futuristic thriller. Set the day after tomorrow, the movie posits that a company called Eye Tech has found success manufacturing "Zoe chips" that parents implant in their prenatal children's brains and that subsequently record their entire lives. After death, the chip is removed and the memory is edited by skilled "cutters" into a condensed highlight reel for funeral services called "rememories."
The most skilled cutter is Alan Hakman (Get it? Hakman? Whoa.) He's played by Williams with the droopy reserve of an undertaker. Whenever Eye Tech assigns a new job, Alan sits at his editing bench -- a beautifully crafted thing of weathered wood and hidden machinery -- and reviews the life in question. He sees everything, including the nasty bits people themselves prefer to forget, but Alan is discreet in all matters up to and including child abuse. He has his own memory he'd like to repress, about a long-ago accidental death that hangs over him like a guillotine -- which happens to be the brand name of his editing machine.
This is a pretty great idea for a movie, touching on voyeurism, privacy, the inconsistency of memory, and filmmaking and movie-watching themselves.
It's depressing to report, then, that "The Final Cut" keeps stuffing all that under the surface of a lugubrious suspense plot. The Zoe chip is mostly a rich man's toy but is starting to spread to the middle-class; a street-level resistance movement is resorting to violence to keep Eye Tech out of people's heads.
Around the time Alan is assigned to cut the memory of the company's late, powerful lawyer, he's approached by a renegade cutter named Fletcher (Jim Caviezel), who wants that memory to help overthrow Eye Tech.
Will Alan go over to the opposition? Will his suppressed guilt pop loose? Will his relationship with comely bookshop owner Delila (Mira Sorvino) make any sense? Interesting questions all, and all bobbled in the telling by writer-director Omar Naim, who seems to want to be the next M. Night Shyamalan but who just doesn't have the chops yet. His inexperience extends from the implausibilities that keep rising out of the plot -- How can Eye Tech make money on a product that takes decades to pay off? Why are all the cars so old? -- to Caviezel's resoundingly fake mustache. Maybe Naim needs to go make five other movies first, then come back and remake this one.
If he does, he should hold on to the film-editor-as-God subtext, which is the best, if not the only, joke in the movie (also pretty rich are the categories into which the editing software sorts the memories: Tragedy, Wedding, Athletics, Masturbation, etc). He might consider another leading actor, too. Williams gives a performance that's honest and carefully wrought but on some level still a stunt. All that courtliness is wearing him out, and it's wearing us out too.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Final CutWritten and directed by: Omar Naim
Starring: Robin Williams, Mira Sorvino, Jim Caviezel
Running time: 104 minutes
Rated: PG-13 (mature thematic material, some violence, sexuality, and language)