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Robot & Frank - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Robot & Frank
Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

Robot & Frank is a simple movie with simple charms. It's clearly low budget, which would usually pose a problem for a film set in the "near future." And here we have a simple solution: set it in Upstate New York, at an old man's house in the middle of the woods. This man has ties to a past that is presumably prior to the present we live in now; he is enamored with printed books; he has very few technological gadgets. There's not a lot of need for production design telegraphic a science-fiction, future world: a tiny car on the highway here, a Skype-like video call projected on the wall there. (You would think that even in the near future there wouldn't still be so much difficulty maintaining a connection.)

But then, in comes a technological gadget that places the story firmly in the future: a "butler"-like robot, brought in by the old man's son because of increasing signs of dementia. Frank Langella is the old man, Frank, and he plays the part in a way that clearly indicates he has all his marbles, because he's so convincing as someone who's lost just one or two. Langella is generally an underappreciated actor, and it's fun to watch him here, as a retired cat burglar who discovers the robot has no moral counter-programming to assisting him in some new burglaries.

The robot himself is only slightly problematic. If there's anything that truly reflects a dearth of budgetary funds for this movie, it's that robot's design, which is hokey as hell. He looks like they just put a little person inside a few cardboard box panels painted white and stuck a space helmet on him. There are subtle machine-movement sound effects as the robot walks, but you can imagine how it looked and sounded on set. This guy is really not far removed from the robot designs in 1960s TV shows, and it doesn't quite feel like that was deliberate.

But the look of the robot is largely beside the point. This is a very human story, and we're never allowed to forget that the robot is never meant to come across as human. Frank is very resistant at first, but becomes fond of the robot, and eventually begins to consider him a friend. But the robot reminds Frank more than once that he is not a person. The robot has a sophistication of memory and language nuance that belies its appearance, but it never goes so far as to seem blatantly unrealistic given its stated programming -- which is to assist in maintaining Frank's health and well being.

Frank has a crush on the local librarian, Jennifer, played by Susan Sarandon, who is always lovely to see. She plays a key role in a twist that I probably should have seen coming but didn't. In a time when printed materials are a thing of the past, the library is being converted into a community center. Jennifer shows Frank a few of their very old books that are too precious even to be checked out. This inspires Frank to commit a burglary, his first in years, with the robot's help. And in so doing, as the robot notes, Frank is invigorated.

I'm not sure Robot & Frank has anything crucial to say, about anything. The future? The debilitating effects of dementia? Father-child relations? Thematically, this movie kind of lacks clarity. But as Frank slowly comes to terms with the limits of his age and cognitive abilities -- which are sometimes great and sometimes terrible, depending on what the plot calls for -- it still makes for a nice, if flawed, story.

It certainly doesn't hurt to have Langella and Sarandon in the leads. Susan Sarandon hasn't stopped looking great, even though she clearly hasn't had any work done. But even the supporting parts are populated with recognizable faces: James Marsden and Liv Tyler as Frank's grown children; Six Feet Under's Jeremy Sisto as the local sheriff; even Peter Sarsgaard as the voice of the robot. These people are all so nice to hang out with that they make Robot & Frank a little greater than the sum of its parts. It's far from brilliant, but it's a pleasant experience.

Frank Langella stares down an unwanted companion in ROBOT & FRANK.

Overall: B
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