Thursday 18 April 2019

From the archive: "Robot & Frank"

Ideas and issues of real substance are being floated beneath the toplayer of quirk applied to the oddly, winningly human sci-fi comedy Robot & Frank. Frank Langella is Frank, an ageing, increasingly befuddled catburglar farmed out to a leafy backwater in upstate New York, where he’s been reduced to shoplifting tchotchkes from chintzy tourist traps. To combat his “periods of disorientation”, as they’re euphemistically referred to, Frank’s mostly absent son (James Marsden) buys him a robot butler to give pop’s life structure, and to ensure he holds to a healthier diet than the cereal and chocolate biscuits he’s been subsisting on.

When Frank learns the robot can be reprogrammed, however, one last, late-in-life masterplan begins to take form: to thwart two snarky big-city content developers, who’ve arrived in town with an eye to digitising the local library, and throwing out the librarians – including Frank’s longtime sweetheart Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) – along with the books.

Writer Christopher Ford and director Jake Schreier aren't blind to the comedy potential inherent in robots – Jennifer’s even renamed her workplace help Mr. Darcy (“it's a very reliable model”) – but crucially Robot & Frank unfolds in a near-future reality that, mechanised underlings aside, really isn’t that different from our own: its points, satirical and sincere, are allowed to land that much closer to home.

Ford’s interest here lies in the difference between men and the machines that have come to dominate our lives. (I’m assuming you’re reading this review on a phone or laptop.) The automaton records memories as cold, hard data, compressed into rudimentary ones and zeroes, where Frank’s recollections are more vivid, colourful and emotional – and yet slipping away from him all the while.

While insisting on a distinction between the two, Schreier’s film is never allowed to drift into Luddism: Frank and his robot, brought to quasi-life by Peter Sarsgaard’s sterling voicework, are instead proposed as a model of the old and the new, working effectively together. As Frank concludes, surveying his new-found resources and pondering the task ahead of him, “it would be a crime not to do it”.

Post-Looper – and with budgets being slashed across the board – we may now be in for a run of SF films more interested in characters than concepts, which obviously benefits actors. Here, Langella gets to play out what’s effectively the Alzheimer’s arc, without omitting the notes of vigour and humour worthier Oscar bait would traditionally tamp down. (Yes, it’s Amour with laughs.)

Sarandon – as in the recent Arbitrage and Jeff, Who Lives at Home – herself gets to blossom anew; we get a very welcome comeback from Liv Tyler and her thousand-megawatt smile as Frank’s travel-writer daughter; and there’s a nice bit for Jeremy Sisto as the town sheriff, who can’t see how anyone as old as Frank would be able to pull off a heist as meticulous as this one.

Schreier offers a nod to the future over the end credits, with footage of the developments in robotics that have come to improve our quality of life (and late-life care, in particular), yet the preceding 89 minutes are nothing if not a respectful, very likeable tribute to the values of old age and experience – while also quietly and persuasively pushing the importance of libraries to any properly functioning culture. Complimentary tickets for Maria Miller, perhaps?

(MovieMail, March 2013)

Robot & Frank screens on BBC1 tomorrow night at 12.05am.

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