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Robot & Frank

2012 | 89 min | PG-13 | 2.39:1

Robot & Frank


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Theatrical release date

 17 August, 2012
 08 March, 2013

Country of origin

 United States

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Robot & Frank Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, September 3, 2012

While I’m not up on my science fiction writing as most people, from my viewpoint, “Robot & Frank” is a fairly original idea massaged wonderfully by director Jake Schreier. It’s a funny movie, but not really a comedy. It’s melancholy, but far from depressing. It’s mischievous, but grounded in realism. A hodgepodge of moods built around an unlikely story of friendship between a man and his service robot, the film carries itself confidently, with occasional moments of significant emotion, articulated superbly in Frank Langella’s lead performance, his most memorable work in quite some time. Who really needs human co-stars when a faceless robot helps to form one of the year’s best on-screen pairings?

In the near future, Frank (Frank Langella) is a former cat burglar fighting the early stages of Alzheimer’s, living a solitary life he occasionally brightens with visits to his local library, now a relic of paper-based education run by librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), a fetching woman the ex-thief has a crush on. To help control his lifestyle without the burden of extended home visits, Frank’s son Hunter (James Marsden) buys his father a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to help with the cooking and the cleaning, also keeping the forgetful man on a strict schedule to encourage mental strength. At first wary of the machine, Frank begins to comprehend Robot’s capacity for learning, soon teaching it how to pick locks and open safes, with plans to restart his former career. Targeting sniveling yuppie Jake (Jeremy Strong), Frank and Robot set out to steal rare books and jewelry, bonding over the experience, which rejuvenates the human’s wellbeing. However, Detective Rowlings (Jeremy Sisto) has his suspicions, with Robot’s memory bank containing incriminating evidence that could put Frank back behind bars.

Scripted by Christopher D. Ford, “Robot & Frank” aspires to bring sci-fi down to a manageable size, eschewing overcrowded metropolises and flying cars to explore a probable, small-town future, where robots have come to assist humans in a casual manner, finding Jennifer christening her library partner “Mr. Darcy,” while Frank grows to accept Robot as his equal, enjoying his nutritious meals and indulging requests for relaxing activities -- the pair almost come across as a married couple at times. Schreier decorates the frame with smart cars and slick communication devices, yet the rule of “Robot & Frank” is to keep the events grounded in everyday behaviors, using future tech to reinforce Frank’s obsolesce, while using a little screen magic to build Robot as a plausible machine of logic and programming receiving an education on old-fashioned lying and burglary.

Bonding over plans of larceny, “Robot & Frank” blends some caper shenanigans into the dramatics, observing Frank feeling the juices flowing again after finding a trustworthy, obedient partner. Library and home invasions are largely played for laughs, undercut with cruel reminders of Frank’s clouded headspace, which blurs his perception of time and place. Despite a cutesy premise, “Robot & Frank” is more of a sobering character study for the majority of its screen time, observing Frank silently battle personal awareness of his dementia, which unnerves him, though he refuses to confront the issue. Hunter and world traveling daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) attempt to reason with their stubborn father, only to battle a man who’s lost touch with his previous sins, leaving painful memories to settle uneasily with Frank’s frustrated family.

Langella’s performance as Frank is peppered with expected displays of crotchety behavior, studying a man who once lived on sugared cereal inside an unkempt house staring down a machine programmed to whip him into shape, encouraging gardening activities and discouraging alcohol consumption. There’s light and dark to the acting, capturing initial unease with the assistant as it turns to dependence and soon, in a funny way, respect and love. It’s satisfying, touching work from the actor, who communicates a full range of emotions without overplaying moments, maintaining the inflexibility of the man as it melts away to devotion. It’s subtle, convincing acting from Langella.

Although she doesn’t appear onscreen, actress Rachael Ma portrays Robot underneath layers of plastic and spandex. While a less flashy role than her non-machine co-stars, Ma contributes credible work as Robot, mastering deliberate movements and posture to bring the character to life. Sarsgaard delivers a warm monotone to offer Robot a computerized comfort, yet Ma carries the lion’s share of the performance, never breaking the fantasy with awkward movements, making Robot seem as real as possible. It’s commendable work.

“Robot & Frank” heads into more of a theatrical direction for its third act, yet the sincerity of the picture is maintained, supported by a few plot turns that deepen interpersonal connections and thematic intentions (“Don Quixote” being a particular literary lighthouse guiding the story). Police entanglements are on the sloppy side (perhaps a comment on the future of law enforcement), but fail to disrupt the engaging fantasy the production competently builds. “Robot & Frank” is a film of small pleasures, yet it adds up terrifically, keeping its cool as the material flirts with sweet and somber turns of fate.

Starring: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler, Jeremy Sisto, James Marsden, Peter Sarsgaard
Director: Jake Schrier

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