Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
September 2012

Robot & Frank

Good morning, Frank

'Robot & Frank' is a sensitive, refreshingly comedic take on aging in the computer age

Robot & Frank
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Director: Jake Schreier
Screenplay: Christopher Ford
Starring: Frank Langella, James Marsden, Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler, Jeremy Sisto, Jeremy Strong and the voice of Peter Sarsgaard
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 29 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Robot & Frank is modest in its ambitions but almost impeccable in its execution. It presents a near future in which everything is digitized, the younger generations have abandoned the old and outdated, and where it is not uncommon to see helper robots filling any number of roles in society - notably those previously held by caretakers and clerks.

But the film isn't overly concerned with dystopia; instead it uses its mild futurism as a way to examine memory, not only individually but on a societal level as well - the links that bind us to our history; the history we forget; the gulf between one generation and the next. And the next.

The result is a wry and compassionate comedy about aging, dying, and the spectre of losing one's place in life. It stars Frank Langella (in another of his patented understated performances) as an aging man whose memory is fading and whose children no longer have the time to take care of him. His daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) is off in a distant country doing humanitarian work (and railing against the proliferation of robots, incidentally).

Hunter (James Marsden), at the end of his rope after watching his father's faculties slowly deteriorate over the years, finally breaks down and gets his dad a robot. This, Hunter argues, is the alternative to going into a nursing facility. The robot (which Frank never names, simply calling him Robot) will put Frank on a schedule, keep him on a healthy diet, make sure he gets exercise, make sure the house gets cleaned and, perhaps most important of all, give Frank an activity to keep his mind occupied.

The activity Frank chooses, as it turns out, is a burglary. See, in his earlier days he was a master thief - a "second-story man" who could find his way into and out of even the most severely secure buildings. Despite not wanting much to do with Robot at first, Frank discovers that his new companion isn't programmed to abide by the law - in fact, he's fuzzy on the parameters of the law in general. He just wants to keep Frank on a low-sodium diet.

There's a charming, innocent sense of mischief in Frank's scheme. His mark is a repugnant businessman/socialite named Jake (Jeremy Strong), who has taken over control of the local library where Frank spends most of his afternoons, and is moving forward with a plan to remove all the books altogether and refashion the library as a trendy digital information center. Upon his very first appearance, Jake is established as nothing less than a condescending twit, and we're more than happy at the thought of him being the target of a heist.

Of course, Frank makes the crucial mistake of first breaking into the library during its transition in order to swipe an antique copy of Don Quixote, in hopes of eventually giving it to the local librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), on whom he's been nursing a bit of a transparent crush for some time now. He leaves his glasses at the scene of the crime, and suddenly Jake is on his scent. (This is probably a too-convenient misstep on the film's part, but as missteps go it's a minor one.)

The planning of the caper becomes Frank's sole hobby. To him, it is a triumphant assault on what he sees as something of a hostile takeover of his way of life. A noble cause. And certainly much more exciting than the petty shoplifting he regularly pulls at the local knick-knack shop.

The heist serves as a sort of pseudo-bonding experience between man and machine, but without getting overly cutesy about it. The film remains committed to its deadpan approach to this odd coupling. Frank teaches Robot how to pick locks, how to sneak in and out without getting spotted, how to case the scene. As long as it improves Frank's quality of life, Robot is all for it. And it leads to one of the single funniest lines of dialogue I've heard all year.

Director Jake Schreier has an eye and an ear for pitch-perfect moments of deadpan comedy. He gets a lot of mileage out of Robot's body language, which is frequently used as a sight gag or as part of an absurd juxtaposition. And Peter Sarsgaard's voice work as Robot nails a balance between the coldness of machinery, the projected warmth of a friendly confidante (think Siri) and the dry humor of a traditional movie sidekick. The movie takes little moments out to explore the absurdities of the machinery itself - like the scene of "casual conversation" between Robot and a fellow helper bot that works at the library.

There is a surprisingly moving moment late in the film that works precisely because of the way Schreier and his cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd frame it. It's a small but perfectly staged sequence that puts the finishing touch on the strange and peculiar relationship between this old man and his robot friend.

A movie like this easily could have fallen apart under the weight of cuteness, or failed to follow through on the inherent humor of Robot - the way he speaks, the way he walks, the various functions of his programming. But the filmmakers find the sweet spot between absurdity and humanity.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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