Friday, August 24, 2012

Better Than Its Set-Up: Robot and Frank

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

It's hard not to laugh at the idea of a movie about a robot who takes care of an aging Frank Langella. I had fears of something similar to the creepy and maudlin Robin Williams film Bicentennial Man, or a story about a curmudgeon who Learns How to Love Again Via His Robot Friend. But Robot and Frank is better than its set-up would lead one to believe.

Langella plays Frank, an aging, divorced father living alone in the "near future," in a house that has seen cleaner days. He's forgetful, but denies it when his adult kids, Madison (Liv Tyler) and Hunter (James Marsden) confront him about it. Hunter decides to get Frank a helper robot to clean, cook, and keep Frank in line. But Frank does not appreciate being cared for by an appliance.

Frank has his routines, and they involve walking to the library, flirting with the librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), and stealing soap from a local beauty store he can't always remember is no longer his favorite diner. You see, Frank used to be a "second-story man," a cat burglar who could find and avoid even the most "fool proof" of alarm systems, and stealing is the one thing Frank isn't forgetting about.

Some neighbors and the local sheriff (Jeremy Sisto) aren't forgetting it, either, especially since Frank spent some time in prison for robbery. When jewelry goes missing from a snobby neighbor's house, Frank is suspect number one.

And rightfully so. Frank's robot is a willing and able partner in crime for Frank, and when they start to plan robberies, the robot sees it as an excellent therapeutic opportunity for Frank, as it involves both mental tasks, and physical ones!

Robot (he never does get a name) and Frank's crime spree is the movie's highlight. At first I thought Frank Langella might be too erudite an actor for such an aging wise guy role, but he proves to be very good at playing a tough guy working hard at hiding his vulnerabilities.

The robot looks like a slightly less constipated version of Asimo. He's clearly played by a person in a robot suit (in this case a woman, Rachael Ma), and is voiced by Peter Sarsgaard. His robot voice will get comparisons to HAL in 2001, but to me, he sounded uncannily like Michael Emerson, so much so I just assumed throughout the whole movie that it actually was Emerson.

Robot and Frank is a small movie. It's science fiction, but not flashy; aside from the robot, clear cell phones, and video projected phone calls, it could be now. The setting is contained in an almost claustrophobic way; Frank's world has gotten smaller as his mind begins to fail him.

Memories, and the idea that we are our memories, is an obvious theme here. Frank is losing his, and his robot can have his "memory" erased with the touch of a button...

And this is an interesting, almost philosophical subject. But the movie falls short, and basically ends before it gets a chance to really explore it. It's like screenwriter Christopher D. Ford confused subtlety with just plain not writing enough.

There's are moments that are genuinely funny, and Langella is able to say lines like "he's my friend" without making you want to roll your eyes; it's certainly a very unique partners-in-crime movie. But ultimately, its smallness works against it, resulting in a movie that never gets a chance to take off, or be truly memorable.

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