By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
Buddy comedies: A cinematic staple, we’ve seen countless versions of mismatched duos thrown together out of circumstance, grudgingly bonding over a common cause. Cops paired with convicts, black dudes with Asians, neat freaks with slobs … there’s almost nothing new under the sun. Cue Robot & Frank, the unlikely pairing of an old man and a talking appliance. Set in the near future, the robot isn’t just any hunk of junk running on a battery; he’s a professional healthcare aid. And Frank isn’t just any stubborn old goat, doddering around the edges of Alzheimer’s; he’s a retired cat burglar. “A second story man,” he says, his chest swelling with pride.
Nope; we haven’t seen a buddy team quite like this.
Living alone, Frank (Frank Langella) holds tight to his independence, refusing to allow his adult children (James Marsden’s Hunter and Liv Tyler’s Madison) to dispatch him to an old-age home. But since Frank’s mental state is eroding in conjunction with his housekeeping skills, his son offers an alternative: Frank can stay put, as long as he agrees to a new roommate with an expressionless voice and a helmet head who will cook, clean and make sure he gets exercise. Frank balks … until it dawns on him that Robot, who can pick a lock faster than any human, just may be the perfect accomplice for a neighborhood heist or two. The concept of a robot programmed to fulfill the role of dedicated helpmate to the human, no matter what the request, is reminiscent of Duncan Jones’ Moon. Even if the human wants something outside the sphere of the robot’s duties — or even the law — the robot will do its best to comply. Here, under Frank’s experienced tutelage, a bandit ‘bot is born. (One can’t help picturing a sequel: Robot versus RoboCop.)
Refashioned from screenwriter Christopher Ford’s earlier student film, and directed by Jake Schreier (who served as a producer on the original), Robot & Frank takes a gentle, lightly humorous look at the challenges involved in dealing with elderly relatives, as well as the abiding loneliness that occurs when the world insists on moving on, leaving its oldsters behind.
Couched in a verdant little town, the story presents us with a rather pleasant future, in which a son drives ten hours every weekend to check in on Dad, and the daughter places calls from third world countries just to say hello. The smart phones are made of glass, and we answer our calls simply by looking at a large HD-like screen. And oh, those robots, tending to our every need. If this is the future, count me in.
As for the septuagenarian actor himself: Just when it seems that Langella might be slowing down, that his stunning performance as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon might have been his last star turn … along comes this project, reminding us once again of his extraordinary talent. Effortlessly dominating the screen with nothing more than a look, a whisper, or the smallest flinch, he tells us worlds. Frank’s burgeoning relationship with his new robot friend is handled beautifully, starting from a point of outrage (“That thing is going to murder me in my sleep!”) to a symbiosis of heart and mind (or, however a heart and mind translates for those of the metal persuasion). During a recent interview, when asked about his process, Langella stated, “You just go into a place in your imagination … I kept thinking he [the Robot] was there all the time.”
Susan Sarandon adds a warm spark to the film as the caring lady librarian. Watching these two film veterans working together – unhurried, generous, easy – is a great treat. However, other characters aren’t particularly well-drawn. Frank’s kids are unbelievably altruistic, while Jeremy Strong’s bratty corporate guy is just that, sans any complexity whatsoever.
Another thread thrums under this piece, hinting that while we’re gradually losing our humanity, the robots are discovering theirs. But that’s a whole other exploration, best left to the dystopian prophecies that have been around since the birth of film itself. Um, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, anyone?
Rating on a scale of 5 metal heads: 3.5
Directed by: Jake Schreier
Screenplay by: Christopher Ford
Cast: Frank Langella, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Susan Sarandon, Jeremy Strong, Jeremy Sisto, Peter Saarsgard
Running Time: 90 minutes