Skillful Langella helps movie be both deeply sad, very funny
The time is the near future. Phones are slicker. Libraries are closing because books are obsolete. People still eat corn flakes and drive regular cars and there's no cure for Alzheimer's.
Frank (Frank Langella) is too proud and stubborn to admit that his forgetfulness is getting to be a problem, so his son gets him a caretaker. A robot. "If you don't mind my saying so, Frank, I think I could be a big help to you," it remarks. Frank resists, but it's the robot or the retirement home.
After a contentious period of adjustment, the calm-voiced, infinitely patient little helper has Frank eating healthier, more focused, better connected to life. In fact he's feeling so confident that he wants to slip back into his old line of work: cat burglary. And he makes his automated assistant his partner in crime.
"Robot & Frank" is an absurdist comedy that's also a moving drama about the human experience and a touching portrait of old age. It's seriously emotional, occasionally deeply sad and even pessimistic, but very funny.
The film owes a large measure of its success to Langella's perfectly modulated performance, which captures the plight of an intelligent man who's beginning to lose his grip. Much of the film is a one-man show, as he interacts with the visor-faced android (which speaks in the soft, tranquil tones of Peter Sarsgaard.)
One can only marvel at the emotional depth this talented actor brings forth. Burglars by and large are not personable or charming, and Frank is no exception. He is serious and gruff, almost a bit of a heavy. He's distant from his children (played by James Marsden and Liv Tyler, each of whom has made a turbulent sort of peace with this difficult old man). He's perversely admirable for his daring, his skill at larceny and his lawless code. He only steals diamonds and "nobody gets hurt except the insurance company." And the more Frank denies his growing vulnerability, the more protective we feel toward him.
Frank's first foray back into criminality is a rare-book heist intended to impress the kind local librarian (Susan Sarandon). There's a warm and poignant interplay between the co-stars. You might predict that they will fall into a saccharine late-life romance, but Christopher Ford's canny script and Jake Schreier's deft direction make the relationship richer and more intelligent than that. They also create an oddly affecting bond between the testy old man and his placid surrogate caretaker.
Frank decides to rob the house of a patronizing technology consultant who's transforming the library into a sterile virtual-reality museum. It's an act of poetic revenge on a man who's wiping the community's memory banks, but it boomerangs on Frank and his faithful robot in a way that hits painfully close to home.
The underlying theme of this marvelous movie is the pain of losing connections -- to family, to the past, even to cherished objects -- but it never loses its connection to the audience.
Memo: 'Robot & Frank'
DIRECTED BY: Jake Schreier
STARRING: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler and voice of Peter Sarsgaard
RATED: PG-13 GRADE: A""
RUNNING TIME: 89 minutes