Title: Robot And Frank
Director: Jake Shreier
Major Players: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler
Out Of Five? 3.5
The recent surge of movies featuring older people seems to be winding down. Most recently, we had the moving and comparatively realistic British offering, Song For Marion. It’s taken film makers long enough to wake up to the fact that there’s some inherently interesting stories and characters to be explored, as well as an abundance of experienced talent to play the roles. But, sadly, there don’t seem to be any more in the pipeline.
Robot And Frank is the latest, and perhaps last, in this vein, but this time we have a light fantasy, set in the near future. Frank (Frank Langella) is developing dementia and his children are worried about him living on his own. So they buy him a robot butler and, while he resists initially, Frank soon discovers that his mechanical minder has hidden talents that not only bring back some focus to his life, but also help him to resume his former “profession”. Cat burglar.
It has to be said, the near future looks very comfortable. And, given some of the technology we see – voice activated video phones operated through the TV, for example – it’s the very near future. The robots and other technical gadgets aren’t a million miles away from current prototypes – as the film’s closing credits demonstrate – giving the film a comfortable feeling.
For the first third of the film, it feels like we’re in a comedy. Frank’s general grumpiness, the bee-hived and constantly watchful store assistant who continually fails to nab him for shop lifting and digs at consultants and changes in the library system all produce gentle, and sometimes wry, chuckles. And the developing relationship between Frank and his robot, despite it being an inanimate object, is nicely drawn. But by the time Frank resumes his former career, the film seems to lose its way, becoming more of a cat and mouse game between him and his adversarial neighbour. And the sub-plot which, essentially, justifies Susan Sarandon’s presence in the film, is too obvious and not particularly convincing.
Director Jake Schreier poses some interesting questions about memory. Frank, the human, is having his memory erased by a creeping disease – but at one point in the film, he has to erase the robot’s memory to save himself. So how are they different? Is it just because one of them has feelings and the other doesn’t? But Frank regards the robot as his friend and it does appear to have feelings of a sort. However, they could be behaviours learnt from its human companion or something imposed through the eyes of the audience as our sympathy for the odd couple grows.
The whole thing is held together by a wonderful central performance from Frank Langella. In turn grumpy, angry, frustrated and bewildered, his periods of lucidity show that a meticulous mind still lurks in the background and that he was a real charmer in his hey-day. The film needed an actor of Langella’s stature to bring what is essentially a slight but interesting idea to life and he delivers impeccably.
Robot And Frank is a gentle and touching film. At times, it looks rather old-fashioned but, given the recent glut of hard-hitting violence (Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty et al), its soft focus view of the world makes a welcome and refreshing change.
PS. And, as soon as they become available, I want one of those robots – model VGC 60L, if you want to make a note now. Not only do they cook and clean to perfection, they grow the most fantastic tomatoes!
Robot And Frank is on general release from Friday, 8 March.
This review is now available as a podcast: http://www.cyberears.com/index.php/Browse/playaudio/18143