In defining the concept of science fiction themes, the relatable consensus would probably range from the techno-titillation of CGI ecstasy, colorful creatures from exotic planets looking to threaten mankind or muscle-bound space cadets itching to conquer evil forces with advanced laser-powered weaponry. Whatever your definition of sci-fi cinema entails the ubiquitous genre is flexible enough to accommodate its philosophical meaning from trivial traces of sophisticated fantasy to the broad spectrum of one’s gregarious imagination.
Filmmaker Jake Schreier’s intimate and probing gem Robot & Frank speaks to the low scale mechanics of the science fiction equation involving the relationship of man versus machine and the humanity and humility of their forced relationship. Poignant, quietly feisty and engaging, Robot & Frank is a redeemable and soulful technological tale of resiliency and dependency between two unlikely sources sporting different anatomies in deteriorating humanistic blood and guts as well as metallic bolts and batteries.
Schreier’s charming robotic romp is his first venture into feature-length directing and he captures the whimsical and psychological depth with sharp precision about a larcenous old coot whose previous criminal craftiness is undermined by his aging process into poor health. The moral compass behind vulnerable man’s reluctance and resistance to the advanced technology that challenges his faltering dignity is a shrewd commentary that keeps Schreier’s Robot & Frank as a rousing story that speaks more volumes than the bombastic big-budgeted fare that tries to echo the same kind of noteworthy and insightful cinematic sentiments.
Veteran stage and film actor Frank Langella (“Nixon/Frost”, “Starting Out in the Evening”) is impishly compelling as Frank, a 70-something year old former cat burglar who has succumbed to dementia as he is holed up in his frazzled home. Frank wears his misery as if it was a badge of honor. He is a pain in the neck to his children but they do worry about his major ailments and advanced age as he is a danger to himself. Since they cannot keep an eye on their unpredictable father there is serious thought in finding Frank a caretaker to watch his every move.
It is not long before son Hunter (James Marsden) comes up with the gesture to buy his frail and fragile father a robotic caretaker (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, “Orphan”, “Shattered Glass”) so that the mechanical guardian can entice his old man into being more stimulated and aware of his surroundings. Naturally, Frank is not thrilled at first with the mechanized menace that dares to violate his space. Of course Robot is programmed to ensure that Frank’s delicate health is not compromised as he is instructed to make sure that the grumpy geezer is soundly monitored.
The fact that fuss is being made over Frank’s frailties is laughable as the conniving ex-con manages to pull the wool over the eyes of his family and fellow residents that think he is an innocent invalid. In reality, Frank is incorrigible and would not think twice in pickpocketing an unsuspecting blind man’s wallet from his pants. Soon Frank will put his thieving instincts to the test as he manipulates Robot into a life of crime. Remember, Frank is alert enough to realize that Robot’s sense of right and wrong is questionable.
Ironically, it is not the Robot that restores Frank’s vigor and sense of purpose. However, Robot does play an instrumental part as an unlikely partner-in-crime as he assists Frank in recapturing his passion for heists. Technically Robot is maintaining the happiness and high spirits that Hunter wanted him to inspire within his father’s old codger doldrums.
Interestingly, Robot & Frank is the millennium’s version of The Odd Couple where two unconventional opposites attract and co-exist in the ambiguous state of respect, angst and survival mode. As the forgetful oldster who longs to get his mojo back in the crime game, Langella is absolutely devilish and delightful as the senile senior on a mission willing to grab at his competence on his own terms. Langella’s performance of a decrepit maturing man on the rebound to reunite with his comfort of corruption is quite challenging and resourceful. The usage of Robot is clever as he represents the symbol of technology that can either impede or improve man’s destined touch with achievement.
Other than the Robot, the local librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) is another close source that charges up the crusty Frank to the point that he is enthusiastic about something other than ripping off people with his detailed break-ins. The film does not avoid some confrontation with loss and sorrow which pinches in some sentimental sap among the quirky highlights.
It is a given that Robot & Frank will not shake up the sci-fi world with its low-key level sense of fantasy adventure. Still, the inherent message resonates powerfully about the calculating connection between mankind and machinery and what this continued union holds for our futuristic societal stability.
Robot & Frank (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
1 hr, 29 mins.
Starring: Frank Langella, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Susan Sarandon, Peter Sarsgaard (voice only), Jeremy Strong
Directed by: Jake Schreier
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Critic’s rating: *** stars (out of 4 stars)