Robot & Frank (2012)

Starring: Frank Langella, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Susan Sarandon, Jeremy Strong, Jeremy Sisto, Ana Gasteyer, Katherine Waterston, Peter Sarsgaard (the voice of Robot), Rachel Ma (as the physical Robot).

Director: Jake Schreier
Rating: PG-13 (for some language.)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Date: August 17, 2012
Home Video Release Date: TBD
North American Box Office: $448 Thousand

TBB, Park Pictures, Stage 6 Films, White Hat, Dog Run Pictures, and Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Written by: Christopher D. Ford.
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★★ 1/2 (out of 5 stars)

A favorite of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, Robot & Frank is a low-budget science-fiction film that has a wide-ranging vision.  Set in “The Near Future”, everything is a little bit more advanced than what we currently have at our disposal.  The phones are paper thin, Skype-like technology beams on to walls whenever a phone call comes through, and robot assistants are available, for a substantial, but not unattainable cost.  These robots can be trained and modified to help those in hospitals, assist folks with tasks at work, or be in the homes of those who need an extra hand.

Frank (Frank Langella), in his early-to-mid 70s, is a single father of two grown children, whose mind is slipping more and more with each passing day and week.  Much of the caretaking of Frank falls to his son Hunter (James Marsden), while his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) is away and not available to tend to his care.  Trying to sustain a family of his own, caring for Frank is taxing on Hunter and he opts to purchase a robot butler (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, acted by Rachel Ma) to ease the increased burden.  Frank is naturally against the idea, frustrated that he has not been provided with help, but rather a burden of his own to manage.

When not looking for the off switch on his unnamed new companion, or trashing Robot with one-liners and off-the-cuff zingers, Frank is seemingly lost.  A former cat burglar and jewel thief, he is unable to walk into a local gift shop without the owner (Ana Gasteyer) demanding he leave immediately.  He goes out to eat at restaurants, only to find they are no longer in business.  He is forgetful, remembers certain portions of his past explicitly well, but likewise can have no memory of basic events that his children remember sharing with him.  Frank does form a unique bond and kinship with Jennifer, the local librarian (Susan Sarandon).  And over time, as Frank becomes more and more accepting of what Robot can do for him, a well-intentioned and innocent act of kindness on Robot’s part, accelerates notions for Frank that perhaps Robot can play a vital role in Frank rebooting his previous life.

Robot & Frank has an ambitious far-reaching screenplay from first-time screenwriter Christopher D. Ford.  This ambition is refreshing, even as Ford seems to occasionally mistake the quest for creating ambiguity for those watching alongside the need to provide some context for that ambiguity to matter.  Robot & Frank, as a story, generates a whole lot of questions with its premise; questions which do not subside very easily as the film presses onward with its intriguing and surprisingly affecting story.

Anchoring the film is a masterful turn from Frank Langella.  There are a great many layers to Langella’s performance and the gifted actor, amassing quite the run these last few years, absorbs himself effortlessly into the conflicted and  troubled centerpiece of the film.  For significant stretches of time, Langella is acting with a faceless and expression-free robot, generating real and tangible chemistry with his on-screen partner.  Each action he takes is intriguing, his line readings always compelling, and i found myself riveted in trying to explore and figure out more about Frank as the film went on.

Susan Sarandon is quite good, connecting with Frank just enough to hint to us that she may be more than just a neighborhood librarian in this story, while James Marsden shows some range in more of a dramatic turn than he has taken recently.  Liv Tyler is not given a lot to do sadly, but Peter Sarsgaard strikes a concordant tone with his vocal work as Robot, mixing a cold, robotic cadence with nurturing, helpful, and more intuitive and human-like interactions with Frank as they develop their relationship with one another.

Watching Robot & Frank I was surprised at how taken by the film I was.  The grainy, low-budget feel of the film, incorporated by first-time director Jake Schreier, may emanate more from necessity than any true artistic direction, but Schreier recognizes how to step back and trust in his actors.  Even if your mind cannot help but drift a little about how unsure Christopher D. Ford’s screenplay seems to be in fleshing out some of the details behinds its conceptual framework, Robot & Frank is simply too interesting and Frank Langella far too impressive for the film to be dismissed straightaway.

SHOULD I SEE IT?
YES
  • Frank Langella gives one of the year’s best performances and continues to fly under the radar with strong, affecting work as he transitions into his 6th decade of acting.
  • Writer Ford and director Schreier are making their debuts here and Robot & Frank is a solid, impressive debut for both.
  • A low-budget independent science-fiction film with high ambition and also an organic and  refreshingly downsized scope will likely (and hopefully) be seen as unique and engaging to viewers.
NO
  • No matter how they are presented, robots and science-fiction stories can simply turn people off.  If that is you, then Langella’s performance, fantastic as it is, will not make you care in the least.
  • There are some notable plot holes which form after you consider Robot & Frank.  Those issues can lead to debate and discussion, but they can also lead people to resent a screenplay that some may feel cheats itself on thinking things completely through.
  • The grainy look and feel may distract some viewers who like their science-fiction clean, visually striking, and less “indie.”
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