Human Error

Based on Richard Dresser's three-man stage play Below the Belt, veteran filmmaker Robert M. Young's satirical dissection of middle-management power games and grotesque corporate indifference unfolds against deliberately artificial-looking, computer-generated backgrounds. The amiable, fundamentally decent Dobbitt (Robert Knott) has just been hired as a "checker"...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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Based on Richard Dresser's three-man stage play Below the Belt, veteran filmmaker Robert M. Young's satirical dissection of middle-management power games and grotesque corporate indifference unfolds against deliberately artificial-looking, computer-generated backgrounds. The amiable, fundamentally decent Dobbitt (Robert Knott) has just been hired as a "checker" at a crumbling, third-world factory compound that turns out never-identified "units." Dobbitt will join a team of three managers; he and veteran checker Hanrahan (Xander Berkeley), who will also share a small, rundown room, answer to the slightly older Merkin (Tom Bower). From the moment Dobbitt arrives, he's enmeshed in a series of absurd power games: The petty and insecure Merkin uses him to undermine Hanrahan, while the hostile and manipulative Hanrahan needles both Merkin and Dobbitt, keeping both perpetually off balance. Their incessant efforts to one-up each other culminate in a competition to see whose wife had the worst experience during childbirth. "When my wife gave birth, she died," crows Merkin. "Beat that, boys!" Bower, Berkeley and Knott, who came to the film from a production of Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, are its greatest asset: Dresser's examination of the bureaucratic double-talk and venal sloganeering that define corporate-think is obvious and not particularly clever. The decision to use aggressively unreal backgrounds to define a filthy, doom-haunted workplace where corroded pipes leak fluorescent ooze, vats of toxins bubble behind ankle-high walls and the river into which the factory flushes its waste is so polluted it catches fire during the company party was a late development. Young planned to shoot in Puerto Rico, using an abandoned oil refinery and an old sugar-processing plant as sets; after repeated postponements, he and producer Joel Ehrlich completely rethought the film's look and used computer technology to push it into the realm of the truly surreal. Though conceptually clever, the results look stagy and schematic and recall nothing more than a pale imitation of Terry Gilliam's BRAZIL (1985).

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