No doubt a lot of nice people with the best intentions put a lot of heart into making “Spare Parts.” It tells an uplifting tale involving an urgent issue and in support of a beleaguered minority. But none of that heart makes it to the screen. Aside from the clever punning of the title, “Spare Parts” ends up as jury-rigged and programmatic as Stinky, the robot in the movie. And, unlike Stinky, it is dead in the water.
Though based on a true story, “Spare Parts,” like every other studio product, rehashes clichés from other movies so as not to unduly challenge the audience.
The Wired magazine article it’s based on, which relates “how four underdogs from Phoenix took on the best from MIT in the national underwater bot championship,” seems high concept enough without needing embellishment. Nonetheless first-time scriptwriter Elissa Matsueda and director Sean McNamara (“Soul Surfer”) set to work remaking the story more in Hollywood’s image.
They combine the two real-life teachers who mentored these students into one stereotype, Fredi (comedian George Lopez), and have given him a workably formulaic back story. A once high-powered engineer adrift after some mysterious disruption in his past, he takes on a job as a substitute teacher at a battered and neglected inner city high school. The wise-cracking but no-nonsense principal (Jamie Lee Curtis) puts him in charge of the robotics club and there he finds renewed purpose by inspiring the four members — all undocumented immigrants — to enter a national competition.
So far, not too bad, but then the filmmakers pile it on: It turns out Fredi comes from a background similar to that of the students. He identifies with them and becomes a surrogate father to one who, like him, has a drunken, abusive dad (a misused Esai Morales).
All goes well until a crisis occurs when Fredi gets an employment opportunity too good to resist. Will he take the job and let the kids down after giving them hope? Not before semi-love interest and fellow teacher Gwen (Marisa Tomei) dresses him down with one of the film’s more platitudinous speeches.
That’s just a couple of the gratuitous, hackneyed subplots that make you think you’ve seen this movie before, only done better. But when Matsueda and McNamara return to the original story, detailing the amazing resourcefulness and ingenuity the kids employ to realize their project, or demonstrating the absurd irony that they can be deported at any moment despite epitomizing the American Dream, “Spare Parts” starts to come together.
Much has been made of late of fudging the facts when turning nonfiction into features. But twisting both fact and fiction into Hollywood’s version of life betrays the virtues of both.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.