Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Aug 27, 2012 8:57 pm 
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Retired crook gets assistant

Robot & Frank is a little movie set in the near future about an old man living alone in the country (Frank Langella) whose son Hunter (James Marsden) brings him a robot. Frank's in the early stages of dementia and the robot is programmed to be a servant and caretaker and organize Frank's days in ways that will stimulate his mind. Working with TV writer Christopher D Ford, first-time director Jake Schreier has produced something smart and rather unexpected. Robot and Frank is a wry look at the young's condescension toward their elders. Even the robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) gets a fair shake, being taken seriously as a non-person. Spielberg's A.I. is wonderful, but the truths this movie contains may be closer to the nature of future human-robot interaction.

The twist is that Frank, who has done two long stints of jail time, the second, longer one for tax evasion, was once a highly skilled jewel thief, a "second-storey man" who worked alone. He's annoyed by the robot at first, little impressed by how well it tidies up, prepares meals, and sets him on a strict schedule. But then he realizes its functions could make it an excellent accomplice in crime. It has a perfect memory and can pick door locks, work out combinations of safes, and generally be useful. The robot turns out not to be particularly programmed for morality, and Frank convinces it that planning some "jobs" will be more stimulating to his mind than planting a garden.

Frank also has a relationship toward a big old town library where he flirts with the head librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandan). Officious moderns are hastening to shut down the functioning library and turn it into an "experience" devoid of actual books to take home and read. A particularly odious fellow from a "non-profit" called Jake (Jeremy Strong) has come to run the emasculated facility/ He and Frank take an instant dislike to each other. But Frank is interested in the suspiciously and appetisingly large and valuable-looking jewels that adorn the bosom of Jake's smug wife Ava (Bonnie Bentley). Thanks to the robot's help, the closing library and the fancy modern house of Jake and Ava are going to see some action.

Robot & Frank might seem merely an odd diversion except for Langella's typically brilliant work. In keeping with the whole outlook of the movie, Langella allows not a shred of sentimentality or cuteness ever to creep into the depiction of this old man. He's struggling for his his sense of worth and his mind, but in movie terms being an outlaw makes him sexy. And Langella can do this so you never question it for a second. Robot & Frank is matter-of-fact and sure of itself. Above all the relationship between human and robot, a kind of odd complicity, is as good and convincing as has ever been done on screen.

Frank also has a daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), who's not around as much as Hunter but is a self-righteous do-gooder with neo-Luddite tendencies who takes it upon herself to come and oppose the robot's presence. Tyler is an actress who never seems very authentic but that works just fine here.

Amusing and suspenseful, this movie that gets by fine on its low budget comes at the uneasy issue of aging and its worst potential inroads on the mind with bold indirection. Because he is steadily losing his memory Frank eventually ends up in a home, but he still has a trick up his sleeve.

Robot & Frank debuted at Sundance in January 2012, and opened in NYC August 17. It comes to France September 19 and the UK March 8, 2013.

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