Human Error (released as “Below the Belt” at Sundance) is many things. It’s a comedy. It’s a three-man play, and a wry commentary on class differences and office politics. It’s also a blend of computer animation and live action; “a 79-year-old director playing in a 24-year-old’s sandbox,” as the film’s producer said before our screening. He also joked that his movie is Sky Captain, but with a story.
The setting is a factory, a computer-generated industrial landscape with no life or sky or water. The factory makes “units,” but of what, we never learn. The three speaking parts are the plant’s manager and two “checkers.” The nameless, brown-skinned workers live in a different world, and they rarely fraternize with the management. The two checkers share a ramshackle room. Their quarters, and the boss’ office are squalid, but at least they’re at the top of the food chain.
The newcomer Dobbit (Robert Knott, wearing a cowboy hat and western shirts) tries to make friends with the veteran checker Hanrahan (Xander Berkeley). The boss Merkin (Tom Bower) tries to befriend both of them. And both checkers vie to be number one with the boss, in hopes of one day taking his place.
Human Error has some very good, playful wit. An early joke has the score adopting rhythms from inside the world of the film; the newcomer knocks on a door and the soundtrack picks it up and repeat it. The social milieu of the management is such that every utterance is twisted against the speaker for social advantage. It’s a white man’s game of The Dozens, and it requires some wit and verbal skill. The naive, “nice” newcomer doesn’t get the culture, and seems to think that he can eventually win them as friends, but they are stubborn. Kafka and the Marx Brothers might have influenced screenwriter Richard Dresser (who adapted his own play).
And yet, the film is unsatsifying. It’s the kind of attempted cinema one only sees at film festivals: good, but inviting qualifiers like”for a low-budget film” or “for what it is.” For me, the film would have been helped immensely by a less patient editor. The dialogue was snappy and funny, but the pace was so slow that you wondered whether you were supposed to laugh. Human Error forces your sense of humor to slow down instead of challenging it to keep up.
Human Error may have a lot going for it, but taken as a whole, it doesn’t quite click.