Kubrick & Spielberg as Lennon & McCartney in A.I.

Kubrick & Spielberg | Cuckoo's Nest | Carly Simon

Kubrick & Spielberg as Lennon & McCartney in A.I.

A few nights ago, a moviemaker whom I respect asked me to define "art." What is it? How do we know? I'll tell you what: Steven Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a work of art. You may not like it, and may appreciate it more in the future, but it's a complicated, genuine bit of genius. There's nothing artificial about it.

Why would we expect Spielberg to make an ambitious film? He's accomplished everything and more, made money beyond everyone's wildest dreams and received accolades from every corner. Most of his movies are on all-time lists — all-time best, highest grossing, biggest deal. Why not just go home and eat caviar? He simply refuses to rest on his laurels.

He's made A.I. with the sanction of the late Stanley Kubrick, following Kubrick's preparation for it but with his own screenplay. Spielberg, you know, did not write his best movies like E.T., Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, or the Indiana Jones series. But he's done so this time, adapting the short story by Brian Aldiss, called Supertoys Last All Summer. He will probably get his first Oscar nomination as a screenwriter.

A.I. is based on the Aldiss story, sci-fi stuff about an android kid in the future who can't seem to make his human mother love him. The story is quite different from Spielberg's version, though — he invented a biological kid for the mother, as well as the mother's break from the android and the subsequent adventures. (It's interesting to note that Spielberg, who himself has several adopted children, chose this not-very-reassuring storyline.)

But A.I. is also inspired, like the Indiana Jones movies especially, by about a dozen different riffs from popular fiction. They are mostly from Pinocchio and The Wizard of Oz but also send knowing winks from Spielberg's own canon: The silhouetted moon and costumed kids hiding in closets from E.T., the encircled gallery from Close Encounters, the angry ocean from the opening of Saving Private Ryan, the theme-park gate from Jurassic Park, and the piles of dead bodies from Schindler's List are among the self-references you can pick out in A.I.

Because the movie title is two letters, no colon, and then the title — and there's a kid at the center with a furry little friend — you might think A.I. Artificial Intelligence is somehow related to E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. Far from it. This is not a movie for children. It can be intensely disturbing, especially in the first of the three "chapters," the one in which a mother abandons her child (OK — it's a robot child, but still) in a forest, instructing him never to return home. Our old pal Elliott would have to be on Xanax if he'd been in this situation.

The mother, Monica Swinton, is played by Mansfield Park's Frances O'Connor. She and her husband Henry (Sam Robards, son in real life of Lauren Bacall and Jason Robards, at last in his first real leading role) take in David (Haley Joel Osment), the first robot child who can love because Martin (Jake Thomas), their own kid, is in a coma. David has been created by Professor Hobby (William Hurt) at Cybertronics, Robards' employer. When Martin recovers and returns home, the family begins to distrust and fear David. Scared that David will be destroyed if returned to Cybertronics, O'Connor abandons him in said forest. It's one of the most disturbing scenes in contemporary films — a mother cutting loose her kid.

David goes on to his second adventure, which involves a futuristic carnival-slash-slave market called the Flesh Fair, where androids are tortured and brokered. He meets Gigolo Joe (Jude Law, in a terrific performance), who becomes his Artful Dodger to David's Oliver. The Flesh Fair, as created by Spielberg, looks more and more like a concentration camp, with the androids the victims being marched to the gas chambers. In one wild sequence, body parts from destroyed androids are dumped like garbage in huge piles. If Spielberg isn't blatantly referencing the Holocaust, then it's somewhere in his subconscious.

The first two "chapters" in A.I. are complete, and while they aren't exactly heartwarming they are incredibly compelling. The Flesh Fair chapter includes a visit to a sideshow called "Dr. Know" (a reference to James Bond's Dr. No? Who knows?) Here, Robin Williams is the voiceover for a cartoon doctor who appears in front of a curtain a la the Wizard and is drawn to resemble something out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (which Spielberg produced). There is also a cameo by Chris Rock, who gives voice to a lookalike android at the Fair. There is probably a boatload of more trivia, but that's all I could catch in one go-round. (My colleague, Bill McCuddy, spotted The Sopranos' Edie Falco shouting a line at the Flesh Fair — so there it begins!)

But the first two chapters never close or resolve, and their open-endedness poses problems. Instead of circling back, Spielberg pushes forward into a chilling futuristic ending that doesn't quite work but almost does — and amazes at the same time. David is frozen under water for 2000 years, then awakens to a kind of post-death dream — very 2001: A Space Odyssey in its weightlessness — in which he is reunited with his mother (O'Connor). It's an Oedipal fantasy that is completely weird and anti-Spielbergian, but so Kubrick in its determination to freak out the audience that you have to applaud it.

(For those who cite the Spielberg invention of a CGI-generated teddy bear that walks and talks — David's R2D2 — all I can say is that without teddy's presence, the mother/son stuff would have moved from a child yearning for love to something more along the lines of Spanking the Monkey.)

In the end, Kubrick and Spielberg made a very winning collaboration. I kept thinking that they were like John Lennon and Paul McCartney — Kubrick being the cutting-edge technical genius like Lennon, Spielberg the cuddly bear sentimentalist found in McCartney. Just as with the Beatles, this pairing works off itself beautifully. But where Spielberg/McCartney would have ended his piece of art with a piccolo and a lump in the throat (think "Penny Lane"), Kubrick/Lennon strikes the final unnerving chord of "A Day in the Life." I guess in the final analysis, Spielberg deserves the most credit for fulfilling Kubrick's vision while all the time wanting to send in that teddy bear to make things all right.

Did I mention the set design, editing and, of course, gorgeous John Williams soundtrack? All perfect, as well as the animatronics. (For scenes involving mutilated androids, Spielberg apparently used human actors who were missing limbs in real life — a cool idea.)

A certain best picture nominee, and a movie that will outlast every single other contemporaneous release, A.I. is a masterwork — a flawed one, but that's what makes it so damned interesting, memorable and worthwhile.

Star Going Cuckoo as Play Flies From Nest?

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest won the Tony Award for best revival, but that hasn't helped ticket sales. The Broadway show is closing on July 29. Originally slated for 99 performances, the play — starring Gary Sinise — was extended to July 29, then to September 16 after receiving Tony nominations, now will close on the 29 after all. Got that?

According to insiders, the many producers of Cuckoo's Nest met early last week in an emergency powwow when it was clear that tickets weren't moving. According to one knowledgeable source, only 800 seats had been sold in advance through July. That was after the Tony Awards, too.

It didn't help that upon making the decision to close, Sinise promptly took off from two performances. "He'd never missed a show until then," said my source. "There were long lines of people who wanted their money back. I don't know if it was a coincidence that he left right after they decided to close."

A PR rep for the show insists that Sinise merely had sinusitis, and that his absence had nothing to do with the closing notice. "Gary's doing a lot of publicity for the show still, so that should prove he's not mad. And no decision is made without his involvement," said Richard Kornberg.

One story offered in support of Cuckoo's Nest — which should have been a great success story considering the Sinise/Steppenwolf Theatre involvement and the Tony — is this: Four actors in the cast advised that they couldn't stay through September after all. That would have required re-casting and rehearsals.

But now I'm told that since Sinise had booked out the extra time, an effort will be made to move the show to another city through September 16 with new cast members in place.

She's So Vain, Etc.

Happy Birthday to our old friend, Carly Simon, who's somewhere in her mid-50s and looks like a million bucks. Before Lilith Fair or any of the one-shot girl singers today, there was Carly — with a voice like crystal, rich melodies and self-revealing lyrics. While Alanis, Paula, Sarah, etc., can't put together two hit singles back to back, Carly had more than a dozen during her first run on the charts and she keeps going today!

See Roger Friedman on Fox News Channel's Entertainment Coast to Coast Saturday and Sunday this weekend. Check local listings.