Idea for a movie: a former cat burglar showing early signs of Alzheimer's gets help in the form of a robot as a present from his son, so the man teaches the robot how to steal. A comedy, right? And probably a bad one. Unless, of course, the writing and the actors are first class.
Director Jake Schreier and writer Christopher D. Ford (both first-timers) turned this over-the-top idea into one of the smartest and warmest dramedies of the year. Robot & Frank, which won Sundance's Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize (given to technology-themed movies), makes a strong case for a second Oscar nomination as best actor for its star Frank Langella, in his best role since Frost/Nixon.
Set "in the near future," Frank (Langella) lives alone and is not much of a housekeeper. His son Hunter (James Marsden) reluctantly drives three hours periodically to check on him when he'd prefer to have him in some sort of hospice, while his free-spirited daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) communicates from a faraway land via satellite through a screen in Frank's living room. When Hunter buys him a state-of-the-art robot that can cook, clean the house, and advise him on how to take care of his body and mind, Frank's reaction is simple: "Fuck this shit."
Frank may be losing his mind, but he still remembers to steal little objects from a local shop, and he especially remembers Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), the employee at the local public library he often flirts with. When he finally realizes he could train the robot to help him go back to his old jewelry-thieving habits, another movie begins, and Schreier pulls it off with such skill that you play along with gags that would fall flat in other, less talented hands.
The movie is less a sci-fi treatise than a meditation on loneliness, friendship, and our basic need for love. More than a movie — it is an acting lesson. Even the robot, equal parts HAL 9000, R2-D2, and Yo Gabba Gabba's Plex, is given an engaging personality thanks to expert voicing by Peter Sarsgaard (Green Lantern). The writing works, but it is the acting that saved this from being a simple crowd-pleaser.
Make no mistake — the movie is all Langella. He even carries Sarandon (underutilized for most of the movie) at a key late scene when, for the first time in the film, Sarandon is allowed to unfold as the great actress she is as the pair reveal elements of the movie you may or may not have realized already. At that moment, both master actors are capable of saying it all without uttering a word. It is perhaps the biggest treat of a movie that's a lot riskier than it seems on the surface.
You can't save a movie from a bad script, but, through great acting, you can turn a simple but solid script like Robot & Frank into the kind of movie that lingers in the most remarkable ways.
★★★ ½ (out of 5 stars)
Dir. Jake Schreier; writ. Christopher D. Ford; feat. Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Peter Sarsgaard, Liv Tyler (PG-13)
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