Shailene Woodley and Jack Whitehall have fun in a romantic comedy that is not quite as edgy as it thinks it is.
Plot: Charles is a womanizer while Elaine is a gold digger. The duo learn humanity when forced to team up and pursue robot doubles of themselves.
Review: Romantic comedies tend to be wholesome and enjoyable without any sort of relevant social message. The same goes for the typical raunchy sex comedy. Rarely are these two sub-genres seen bundled together, least of all with a science fiction twist. The new movie robots, starring Jack Whitehall and Shailene Woodley, is both a sex comedy and a romantic one but with a sci-fi angle that is all packaged together into a relevant social message about the immigration reform in the United States. If that sounds like a heavy subject matter, rest assured that it delivers a coherent and funny message that may not be quite as strong as the filmmakers hoped for. Nevertheless, robots is a unique blend of styles that is heartfelt and funny.
robots is set in the very near future after the border wall between the United States and Mexico is completed. Having been completed by robot workers who have replaced migrant labor, the government enacts laws making it illegal for citizens to have android doppelgangers of themselves. That does not stop Charles (Jack Whitehall) from purchasing a duplicate of himself using his father’s wealth. The New Mexico-based Charles uses his robot to woo women under the guise of being the perfect guy before swooping in to have sex with them. When Charles meets his ideal in Elaine (Shailene Woodley), little does he know she uses a robot to get expensive gifts from men without having to sleep with them. When their robots end up falling in love with each other, the real Charles and Elaine are forced to tolerate each other so they can find and destroy their machine slaves.
The heavy dose of Trump-era debate allows robots to mock American immigration policy and open jokes about Elon Musk and Tesla. But, those biting commentary elements quickly disappear when the story shifts to the relationship between Charles and Elaine. At first, the distinct differences between the human and robot versions of the couple make for light humor. Shailene Woodley, in her first comedy performance, is good as the vain gold digger who uses her curves to make money off of men without making a slut of herself. Jack Whitehall, who is often typecast as the smarmy British character, is very good in a lead role that allows him to play into that cliche and against type. There is some decent rom-com growth for the two characters as they explore what it means to be in love and whether their metallic replicas can feel emotions as living people would.
When robots shifts from the wacky comedy of errors approach between the pairs of Charles and Elaines, it begins to lose its way a bit. Using a surprising plot device of a workplace shooting, the story instead brings the human pair closer while developing them into likable people instead of the debauched and entitled characters they start the film as. Some good moments are shared between Woodley and Whitehall, but the best scenes include Paul Rust, best known for his lead role in Netflix’s Love. The few other supporting characters never really develop into much as Woodley and Whitehall already have double the screen time and serve as their own supporting cast for much of the movie. Woodley gets some additional angles to her performance, but I will not spoil how that comes together.
Based on the 1978 short story “The Robot Who Liked Me” by Robert Sheckley, robots was written and directed by Casper Christensen and Anthony Hines. Christensen is best known in his native Denmark as a comedian and the co-star of the acclaimed Klovn television series and feature films. Hines is a long-time collaborator of Sacha Baron Cohen’s, having written for Da Ali G Show and the Borat and Bruno feature films. The blend of ridiculous comedy that does not pull any punches and politically relevant material is a staple of both writers. robots definitely has a sensibility that is rebellious in nature, but it sometimes feels like it may be playing it safe by sticking to the conventions of romantic comedies. This makes the film a bit more palatable for general audiences, but I cannot shake the feeling that this movie should have gone a little darker or raunchier.
robots may not be able to drive home its political leanings as well as Sacha Baron Cohen’s projects are capable of. Still, it certainly evokes a lighter take on a story that could have been an episode of black-mirror. I would have liked to see this concept push the envelope more instead of just being a romantic comedy kicked off by a science fiction concept. At the very least, both Shailene Woodley and Jack Whitehall deliver fun performances, with Woodley showcasing an aptitude for more comedic projects in her future. robots is ultimately a harmless movie that is fun in the moment but does not really earn much of the conversation it tries to kickstart. robots is likely to underwhelm at the box office but could do decent business on streaming.