Robot and FrankReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/28/12 12:13:38
People often ask writers of offbeat or science-fictional stories where they get their ideas, but that's often the wrong question, since ideas are everywhere and one has to but pick up a paper or click on a website to trip over three or four. It's putting them together to make a good story that's tricky. For instance, the idea of using robots in elder care has been floating around for a while, though not nearly as long as the bored, retired criminal. The combination is what gets filmmakers on the road to "Robot & Frank", but it takes Frank Langella and some other collaborators to make it kind of wonderful.And some details, of course. Frank (Langella) is not just starting to slow down, but his memory is going. With his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) doing charity work on the other side of the globe and his son Hunter (James Marsden) five hours away, he's only getting worse. Thus the robot Hunter delivers one weekend, and though Frank wants no part of it, especially when he's talking to the town librarian (Susan Sarandon), he re-evaluates that when he discovers that its programming does not actually prevent it from breaking the law, and the robot could be a potential partner-in-crime.
It says a lot about Robot & Frank that I wonder if the main character was given his name because writer Christopher D. Ford and director Jake Schreier saw Langella in the role from the very beginning. The part fits him like a glove, after all, even though it's often much more low-key than the intense performances he's best known for. There's bits that suit his theatrical background as he occasionally tells stories or exaggerates lies just enough for the audience to feel like a part of his schemes, and he's just crotchety and defiant enough to show how he can inspire both fondness and annoyance. It's the way he handles the character's memory lapses that are most impressive, though - rather than the befuddled stumbling some actors will do, making "good days and bad days" completely binary, Frank will slip into the past but still stay somewhat tethered to the present. It lets us empathize with his conviction that he can look after himself rather than just see him as someone who doesn't realize he's a problem to be solved.
The rest of the cast is pleasant enough, though their characters are often written with more breadth than depth. Liv Tyler's Madison, for instance, is kind of an idealist stereotype, and I'm not sure whether Jeremy Strong plays his character too weird or as a realistic depiction of next generation's hipsters. James Marsden does a pretty good job of making Hunter an everyman frustrated by his father and a bit guilty when he feels its for selfish reasons; it's a standard-issue character that nevertheless feels like an individual. Jeremy Sisto makes the most of a small role as the local sheriff. Susan Sarandon is probably underused, though - she's often Langella's equal but the story the filmmakers want to tell doesn't have a lot of room for Jennifer.
That story is interesting, though, especially toward the end when Frank has to face what is happening to him just as the idea of it becomes particularly horrifying. That's in part because Ford has an unusually clear view of the differences between human intelligence and even the most sophisticated artificial intelligences, and he's able to allow the characters to be as fuzzy about it as most screenwriters are. He, Scheier, and the rest of the crew are able to create a plausible "near future", and Scheier does a nice job of making the story about Frank and his family while not acting like the science fictional stuff is just a useful-but-embarrassing hook.Most of all, the filmmakers are able to use a light touch to get some fairly serious and uncompromised thoughts across to the audience. They're the thoughts a lot of people may have when presented with the movie's themes, but few would combine them quite so elegantly and amusingly.
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