Review: Script, cast impress in ‘Robot & Frank'


Frank Langella, left, and his robot in “Robot & Frank.” (Comingsoon.net)

Published: Friday, October 5, 2012 at 10:59 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 5, 2012 at 10:59 a.m.

After a summer of avenging superheroes, dark knights rising and expendable blockbusters, it's nice to head into fall with a quiet, charming movie about more mundane matters like aging and family. While it's just October, meaning the true “Oscar bait” movies are still a month or so away, “Robot & Frank” is an early herald of the more serious end-of-year fare that will soon populate theaters. With its stellar performances throughout and lighthearted-yet-thoughtful script, “Robot & Frank” will sway anyone willing to give it a chance.

The titular Frank, played by Frank Langella, is a retired thief living in Cold Spring, N.Y., in “the near future.” Frank is showing the early warning signs of some form of dementia; his house is a sty, he's forgetting the names of his children and in the opening sequence attempts a heist of his own house. In spite of the obvious, Frank loudly insists to anyone who will listen that “There's nothing wrong with my memory!” The only source of joy in Frank's life is his trips to the library, where he awkwardly courts Jennifer the librarian (Susan Sarandon). Jennifer is clearly interested, but she's reluctant to commit to Frank and seems to bear some deep emotional wound that hasn't fully healed.

Additionally, there are some long-standing family feuds in Frank's life. His son, Hunter (James Marsden), is resentful because Frank doesn't acknowledge the effort he puts into taking care of him. Meanwhile his globe-trotting daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), keeps dictating how he should run his life from afar even though she has no real idea of what his life is actually like.

Frank's ordered, if not exactly upbeat, existence is interrupted by a gift from Hunter: A personal robotic assistant who responds to the simple moniker of “Robot.” Robot, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard and looking like a future Apple product with its sleek white body, would prefer to help Frank by getting him to keep a regular schedule, exercise and garden. Frank has other ideas in mind: He wants to use the robot to help him steal from some local yuppies who he thinks have ruined the neighborhood.

Much of the joy of “Robot & Frank” comes from watching the plot unfold in new and interesting ways. As Frank plans and executes his heists, he's also forced to belatedly confront the family troubles he's been putting off. Writer Christopher D. Ford expertly plays the various subplots off each other and throws in lots of lightweight, sly humor to keep things moving at a brisk pace.

It certainly helps that the movie is brilliantly cast. After many years of sulking in the background of various superhero adaptations, Marsden is finally free to show off some real emotion and lay off the whining. Hunter clearly has some unresolved issues with his father, but he also cares deeply for Frank. Liv Tyler doesn't do quite so well as Madison, but she's competent and puts aside her usual “ethereal beauty” persona to show someone who has the best of intentions for Frank, even if she has no clue about how to pursue those intentions. Sarandon, who seems to be having a resurgence this year in supporting roles, is very good as Jennifer, a woman who wants to love Frank but also has very strong reasons to not let that happen.

The title characters are the ones who are most impressive, though. Langella makes Frank's dementia completely believable without letting it overshadow the performance. It's a fine line to walk, but he makes it look easy. Watching Langella illustrate Frank's gradual personality overhaul as he learns to reassess his priorities and his life is a deeply compelling thing to see.

As the robot, Sarsgaard may have an even greater challenge, though, considering he doesn't even have facial features. This makes his excellent performance all the more remarkable. Like his distant cousin HAL in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Robot must suggest emotions and motives while maintaining an illusion of artificial objectivity. But whereas Douglas Rain gave HAL an undertone of menace, Sarsgaard laces Robot's dialogue with subtle hints of wit and irony, making him much more than an animatronic home health aide. We suspect that there's more to this robot than meets the eye, and the payoff to the relationship between it (him?) and Frank is bittersweet while still being extremely satisfying.

It remains to be seen whether “Robot & Frank” will end up winning any major awards; voters for awards shows have notoriously short memories, and the film lacks an awards pedigree aside from Langella.

But anyone who can track this movie down at their local theater will undoubtedly come away with a smile on their face and perhaps a tear in their eye.

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