Aug 21, 2012

Robot & Frank

A sweet, thoughtful, original and unlikely comedy about a man with incipient Alzheimer's and the robot that is hired to help him out; this is, once more, an opportunity to witness the greatness that is Frank Langella. He has been nailing every performance in every movie he is in, but this one is a gem. Langella plays Frank, a man who lives alone in a little town in the near future, and who is losing his memory. He happens to be an ex-burglar and he is ornery, proud and in denial. His exasperated son (James Marsden) gets him a robot to keep an eye on him and help whip him into shape. Frank is annoyed and humiliated by the robot (voiced by a suave and solicitous Peter Sarsgaard), but as the robot has been programmed to improve his charge's health, Frank, crafty bastard that he is, realizes he can manipulate the robot to help him plan some heists, which are the only thing that keeps his mind alert and bring him joy. It is a truly original premise and director Jake Schreier strikes the perfect tone. The movie is funny, smart and very touching. Somehow, one believes that a relationship is created between Frank and the fantastic Robot, closer to that which he has with his dutiful but distant children. Langella should be nominated for every prize in the book for this extraordinary performance. He doesn't chew the scenery; he doesn't need to. He completely inhabits Frank. One believes he was once a very good burglar. One believes that he doesn't remember who his children are. One knows when he remembers and when he doesn't, when he is faking dementia. He is so good at faking the faking, he is just astonishing. One can see the regret and the sadness of his current life, his tough side, and the sparkle in his eye when he relives his planning feats. He also has impeccable comic timing. Langella has become one of the greatest American screen actors.
I could watch Susan Sarandon pad around in her pajamas and pay the price of admission. I will endure any movie if she happens to be in it. Here she plays a librarian, something of a species on the verge of extinction, who is very nice to Frank, who flirts with her. Her warmth and intelligence fill up the screen. The long lost Liv Tyler plays Frank's daughter, some sort of ditzy hippy liberal who travels the world and James Marsden as the son has great reserves of contempt for a dad who not only was never there, but who shamed the family for being a crook. Yet the delightful chemistry belongs to Frank and the Robot.
A light comedy, Robot & Frank nevertheless touches upon the very painful theme of aging and  memory loss, of losing touch with life. It also skims through the possibilities of a near future when robots will be our daily companions (we're not that far off, given our exaggerated attachments to iThings).
It could have been a gray dystopian bummer look at the future, as sci fi movies usually are, but the twist here is that it is less a sci fi flick than a comedy in which the near future looks almost identical to the present. This makes us focus on human feelings and memories, more than on man made objects. Robot & Frank has a wistful air of nostalgia for objects who don't talk back, like books, for the human connection we are afraid of losing (if we haven't yet) in this age of constant screens. Robot and Frank likes to think that the human is still in charge. It makes us wonder for how long.

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