Synopsis: Set in the near future, an ex-jewel thief receives a gift from his son: a robot butler programmed to look after him. But soon the two companions try their luck as a heist team.
Stars: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Peter Sarsgaard,
Director: Jake Schreier
Running Length: 89 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (9/10)
It really is the quiet ones that sneak up on you. From the preview of Robot & Frank, I was guessing that the film itself would be a blip on my radar in the grand movie-going scheme of things. Good buzz propelled me to see it opening weekend and I’m so glad I did. Now, I have more time to spread the word about the film and encourage others to take it in as well. What on the surface appears to be a Driving Miss Daisy-esque film with a cranky old-timer rebelling against the services forced upon him by his offspring is really a rare film of integrity and surprising heart.
Set in the near future but looking quite similar to the world we live in today, the film opens with Frank (Langella) and his daily routine. With his rumpled attire and his set-in-his-way gait, we quickly pick up that he lives alone and likes it. He spends his days in the upper NYC hamlet he calls home trudging into town to flirt with the librarian (Sarandon) and shoplifiting some items from a local store. Gradually we learn that Frank’s become more forgetful lately and shows early signs of Alzheimer’s.
That’s when Robot comes into his life courtesy of his son (Marsden) but against the wishes of his human rights minded daughter (Tyler). Programmed to keep him active and healthy, Frank resists the Robot until naturally he can’t any longer. It’s only when Robot accidentally gets a five finger discount on something that retired cat burglar Frank starts to feel like his old self again.
That’s more of a plot description than I normally like to give but it’s key to have that groundwork for what’s to come next. The film doesn’t so much change gears as it just chooses a different fork in the road that we didn’t notice originally. The symbolism of a man losing his memory working with a robot who can easily be reformatted is not lost on the viewer or Frank. As acceptance of the future starts to set in for all of our characters a new, more poignant film is revealed that’s quite impressive.
I’ve always found Langella to be a bit inaccessible as an actor as he is mostly cast in aloof roles. In Robot & Frank, this coolness works in his favor. Frank (the character) sees what’s happening to him and begins to pull away from the world either out of fear or pride and it’s only when he starts to regain his old spirit that he warms. It’s one of Langella’s best performances, understated and nuanced and played to perfection.
Marsden and Tyler also do strong work as his children who approach their father’s declining health from different points of view. Marsden plays a family man who is trying to be there for his kids like his dad wasn’t there for him. Moving into the role of caregiver, he brings Robot to his dad not as a way to remove burden from him, but as a way to give some peace of mind. Tyler’s character strongly opposes the use of advanced technology and struggles to do right by her dad while still providing him the same care Robot does. Both actors have great familial chemistry with Langella and each other.
I could go on and on about my continued admiration for Sarandon in every role she touches. Already scoring strong in 2012 with her sensitive work in Jeff Who Lives At Home, she too turns a secondary character into one with a lot of heart and authenticity. As her past is revealed slowly throughout the film I marveled at the way she took control of her seemingly innocuous librarian and made her flesh and blood. Langella and Sarandon are pros and you’ll know what I mean after you see the film.
In the pivotal role of Robot, first time director Schreier wisely chose to eschew any CGI work by using an actress (Rachel Ma) to portray Robot onscreen and cast Sarsgaard as the robot’s calming voice. In his soothing delivery, there are echoes of HAL2000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey but that’s where the similarities end. Both performers are key to the success of the interactions onscreen between Frank and Robot with Ma making the movements believable and Sarsgaard holding steady as the stolid marvel.
An unobtrusive but lingering score by Francis and the Lights and beautifully detailed cinematography by Mathew J. Lloyd all work in conjunction with Schreier’s touching direction of Christopher Ford’s script. There’s a lot to say about progress, memory, aging, and family and it’s all delivered in a manner that never feels false. It could have been easy to make the future world look more tech-heavy but instead the lower budget may have worked in its favor with only a few slight upgrades to items you’ll believe will have advanced that far in the next decade.
At only 89 minutes, the film feels like an early Christmas gift that’s waiting to be unwrapped. Thanks to spot-on performances and a delicate third act, I was so impressed with what I was seeing onscreen. Like The Intouchables before it, this is one of the most moving films I’ve seen in 2012 and recommend it highly.