We all need a PAL.
Robot & Frank, the feature debut of director Jake Schrier, sounds like it has the potential to land in independent cinema quirk hell, but surprisingly manages to hit all the right notes with its quiet arc. While it’s mostly a comedy featuring light dramatic streaks and science-fiction buttressing, at its core it features a much more melancholy tone, only furthered by an excellent turn from Frank Langella.
Set in the “near future” in a small town outside of New York City, Frank (Langella) resides by himself in his remote home. It’s immediately evident that Frank seems to be slowly exhibiting signs of serious memory loss, which alarms his son (James Marsden) and daughter (Liv Tyler), even though they seem to be a tad detached from dad. We soon learn why—it turns out Frank served two stints in prison, a six, then ten year sentence (cat burglary and tax evasion, respectively).
Divorced for thirty years, Frank is clearly an old codger very much content with being alone. But it being the near future and all, robot technology has been modified to such an extent that helper healthcare models exist, which Frank’s son unloads on dad so he won’t have to worry about him so much. Frank is at first alarmed by this “death machine,” but, as could be predicted, he forms a special bond with the robot (that he never names, and is voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). Since the robot’s sole priority is Frank’s health, Frank is able to manipulate the robot into collaborating on his favorite pastime—robbery. Their first heist requires the pilfering of an out of print copy of Don Quixote from the newly remodeled library (where books have recently been disposed of) in order for Frank to present the classic text to his love interest, the bookish librarian (Susan Sarandon). But when Frank and the robot engage in a more daring jewelry heist and Liv Tyler shows up to save him from being looked after by a mechanical slave, Frank has to decide on how to save his new friendship, a relationship he has endangered with his actions.
Schrier’s feature debut is a cute independent film, with a little something at its core to make it a cut above similar independent sugary narratives. There’s certainly no great dramatic moments or ripping guffaws. Instead, this rather quiet, methodical film is buoyed by a loveable performance from the great Frank Langella. While supporting cast members are quite fine, including a goofy town sheriff played by Jeremy Sisto, this is clearly Langella’s vehicle. Peter Sarsgaard is perfect as the voice of the robot, a warmer version of HAL, if you will (and less creepy than Kevin Spacey’s epicene bot in Moon, 2009). And there’s a little surprise twist the film throws in at the end, but overall, this is a film concerned with getting older and losing one’s memory. Even as Frank is slowly beginning to lose his, he’s reluctant to wipe his robot’s memory clean, even in order to save himself from prison time. It’s his shared experiences with the robot, the memories they both share that Frank adamantly does not want to give up. And this is what saves Robot & Frank from being a mere cute exercise. The worst thing of all perhaps, is to forget.
Reviewed on January 21 at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival – PREMIERES Programme.