Tuesday, September 11, 2012

ROBOT & FRANK is a Funny, Heartfelt, Surprising Trip to The Twilight Zone


- Like a lost episode of The Twilight Zone, Robot & Frank is a sci-fi allegory, an all-too-human story, and a profound fable all rolled into one. I absolutely loved this film. It made me think, feel, and marvel at the spectacular, Oscar-worthy central performance of Frank Langella - at his very best here.

Robot & Frank is a simple story with a lot of depth. Like the Twilight Zone episodes of old, it's not exactly subtle in its storytelling ... and yet, there are indeed many subtle layers to Frank Langella's character ... it's one of those acting jobs that's amazing to just sort of sit back and watch and take in all of the little nuances. Robot & Frank takes place in the near future, in a world that's not too hard to imagine evolving from our current era. In this future, the analog age has even more fully given way to a digital reality. Robots are starting to become commonplace in the home and workplace. In particular, a sleek model of helper-robot is starting to become a mass-market item. A sleek, space-age automaton that looks like a cartoon spaceman as designed by Apple. One of the common uses for these helper robots is to care for the elderly. They serve as a butler, aide, caretaker, and, in a strange way, companion. Suffice it to say, the aging, grizzled Frank does not want the robot that his protective son Hunter (James Marsden) gives to him. James drives two hours to see his dad every weekend, and he's becoming increasingly concerned about the old man - his memory seems to be deteriorating, and Frank seems to be losing his ability to care for his home and for himself. The twist here is that Frank is no ordinary senior citizen. He's an ex-con. In his day, he was a master thief, a skilled cat-burglar, a legendary con-artist, and a man of adventure. At first, Frank resists the robot - he doesn't want an artificial caretaker telling him to excercise, take his pills, and find new hobbies. He is firmly of the same anti-robot mindset as his daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler) - though she is so because of an overwrought conviction that robots should not be used for labor in place of real people. Soon enough though, Frank begins to warm up to the thing. He begins to enjoy its company (he does, afterall, live alone in a rather isolated house on the outskirts of town). But what really gets Frank to warm up to the robot is when a lightbulb goes off in his head - when he realizes that the robot - adept at everything from picking locks to cracking safes to hiding evidence - could be his ticket back to the big scores of his criminal heyday. And therein lies the irony of Frank - going back to a life of crime is what makes him feel rejuvinated - sharper, spryer, happier and more fulfilled than he's been in years.

The less you know about where the story goes from there, the better. All I will say is that ... when I suggest that the movie is like a Twilight Zone episode, I'm not kidding. But the movie does a remarkable job of combining big, hit-you-over-the-head emotional and story beats with a whole lot of humanistic, heartfelt emotion. What Langella does here is nothing short of phenomenal. You can't help but root for Frank, even as he engages in criminal acts. At the same time, you can't help but feel sorry for the guy - especially as we see how his memory continues to evaporate, as Alzheimer's and/or dementia sets in. Anyone who has witnessed a family member go through this will feel twinges of sadness and heartbreak, as Langella brilliantly portrays his character's off-and-on symptoms, his self-denial, his frustration with his own loss of sharpness. An easy way to tell this story would be to have Langella play a badass who becomes unstoppable with the help of his new robot companion. But the movie takes a much more complex route to telling its story, giving Frank moments of triumph and tragedy - moments where he seems like the smartest guy in the room, and moments where he seems pathetic and ineffectual - an old man overreaching. But my god, to think that Langella puts on this performance for the ages, even as much of his screentime is spent acting with a robot (or a guy in a robot suit, I guess) - it's incredible. The way that director Jake Schreier crafts the relationship between Robot and Frank ... the way he makes us really care for them as a pair, despite one being a four-foot-tall machine ... again, it's pretty amazing. And I also give a lot of credit to the script by Christopher D. Ford. It's a fantastic piece of work. Funny, moving, and poignant. The tone here is a very delicate thing. Certain characters are deliberately more over-the-top and cartoonish (Tyler as the whiny, semi-oblivious Madison, Jeremy Strong as a slimeball who becomes Frank's mark). But Ford's script keeps things emotionally grounded, despite the movie's more fantastical and comedic elements.

This is Langella's show, but the cast as a whole is quite good. I'll give special mention to two people. One is Susan Sarandon as Jennifer, the librarian of what seems to be the last real library in the world, which happens to be Frank's favorite place (partly for the books, partly because he enjoys flirting with Jennifer). Sarandon is amazing in this role, especially as certain information about her character comes to light. And then there's Peter Sarsgaard, who voices Frank's robot. Sarsgaard is doing one of those classic HAL-style robot voices, but what's impressive is how he puts little hints of something more beneath the surface. The fact that we come to care for the robot - just as Frank does - is a credit to the script, to Sarsgaard, and to the film as a whole.

I found myself very surprised by this film. I didn't anticipate where it was going with its plot and character development. I didn't anticipate the brilliant way in which Frank and his robot's destinies would end up becoming comingled. I didn't anticipate that this movie would have the layers of social commentary and sci-fi allegory that it did. And man ... I did not anticipate the emotional gut-punch of the film's final act. Perhaps some may find the film hamfisted. But I was so invested in its characters, so won over by the movie's combo of humor and heart, that I couldn't help but be bowled over by its ultimate revelations. It left me a bit shaken, to be honest. Happy, sad, floored by Langella's performance ... and feeling like I had just seen one hell of a movie.

Go see ROBOT & FRANK. It's a fantastic movie, and one of the best things I've seen so far this year.

My Grade: A-

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