George Clooney is a movie star, the real goods. In Batman & Robin, he slips on the old rubber ears as comfortably as he suits up in surgical scrubs on TV each week on ER. In Clooney's first scene with Chris O'Donnell himself fully installed, at this point, as the perkiest of frat-brother sidekicks Robin, enviously eyeing his mentor's Batmobile, whines that he wants wheels too. ''That's why Superman works alone,'' mutters Batman as he zooms away, solo. Clooney delivers this bit of commentary with such gracious oomph that we relax immediately, instinctively recognizing that unlike Michael Keaton's Batman (a brooder) or Val Kilmer's Batman (a scowler), this superhero is accessible, urbane, TV-friendly. He's Batman, the Guy!
All the most interesting stuff in Batman & Robin and all the wittiest dialogue in screenwriter Akiva Goldsman's lively script take place all in the family: in the brother-brother relationship between the title duo (Robin expressing feelings of competition and horniness for babes, that is; Batman teaching the importance of partnership and trust); in the father-son bond between Alfred (Michael Gough as ever) and Bruce ''Batman off duty'' Wayne; in the new brother-sister bond forged between Robin and motorcycle daredevil Barbara Wilson, a.k.a. Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone, sweet, appealing, and no pushover). But, unfortunately, the charming Batfamily can't stay in their cave indefinitely; they've got to go out and fight crime. And that's where this elaborately high-style production from Batman Foreverdirector Joel Schumacher hits an iceberg.
Two big new villains are up to no good: Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a former molecular biologist who threatens to chill the town to death, and Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman), a former botanist who packs a toxic kiss. The double trouble of the icy and the hot, the frigid and the sexual, has an elegant symmetry to it. But each character is such a one-dimensional idea and each actor is such a dramatic clunker that they slow down the works every time they appear. Schwarzenegger, in particular (billed above Clooney and paid a price far above rubies for the burden of stepping into a fancy Bubble Boy suit and intoning quote-me punchlines like ''The Iceman cometh!'') is a monolithically heavy presence. Thurman ain't heavy, but neither is she the chlorophyll-filled femme fatale she aspires to be. Separately or together, the two are distractions rather than attractions. And that spells trouble in Gotham City.
By now, the dispatching of various comic-book meanies is the least satisfying part of the deal, no matter how many disco scenes or gizmos are thrown onto the screen. It's in our interest in the mature suaveness of Batman, the blooming hunkiness of Robin, and the nymphy possibilities of Batgirl that the franchise has a heartbeat. It's an odd day in Tinseltown when Schwarzenegger in sci-fi makeup is less exciting than a TV actor who does battle in his tights. But as they say in the comics, that's charisma, baby. When you're hot, you're hot, and when you're not, you're a frozen stiff. C+