'Robot & Frank': Memory, Man and Machine
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Don't be misled by the title of this bittersweet gem. "Robot & Frank" may be set in the near future, but it's no silly sci-fi fairy tale. Whimsical and poignant by turns, the film never goes gooey at its emotional center or bogs down in heavy dramatic weather. How could it, when this spare story of aging and fading memory stars Frank Langella, the old lion of stage and screen who dominates every role he undertakes in the winter of his acting career? "Robot & Frank" is very nearly a one-man show, a master interacting with a machine.
Search: More on Frank Langella
First-time director Jake Schreier, graduating from commercials and music videos, shows surprising smarts and maturity by not getting in Langella's way -- and by celebrating, sans irony or excess of sentiment, the fundamental human need for connection and purpose.
Rusticating in a pleasant old country house, onetime ace second-story man Frank has grown so discombobulated he wakes up in the dark, burgling his own digs. Langella's still-powerful physicality is thwarted by aimlessness: His handsome features are going a little soft, infected by terminal boredom. About all that anchors this increasingly forgetful gentleman in the here-and-now are the friendly town librarian (Susan Sarandon) and occasional forays into small-beans shoplifting. And now all his beloved books, tattered relics of the print information age, are being digitalized, while the nice lady who tracked down tasty tomes for him is being replaced by Mr. Darcy, an ambulatory talking box. (Somewhere Jane Austen giggles.)
It's not that the old-timer's been abandoned. Daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) Skypes from her world travels, and snotty son Hunter (James Marsden) drives five hours from somewhere to check up on his diffident dad. Sure, the kids care for Frank, but their affection's a little tentative after growing up with a father mostly off pillaging or in prison. There's talk of institutionalizing Frank in a "memory center."
Then, courtesy of Hunter, a caretaker robot comes to live with the curmudgeon. Small, white, helmeted, with only a black window where a face should be, this bustling butler takes charge. Wake-up calls, healthful food, exercise -- the old geezer resists it all, refusing to interact with "an appliance." Animated by Rachael Ma, Robot speaks in the voice of Peter Sarsgaard, his perfectly, neutrally modulated tones neither faux-human nor HAL-like when announcing, "Time for your enema, Frank." Yet the service bot's programmed to chat, ask questions, project curiosity about what Frank's up to, so pretty quick it's hard not to attribute personhood to Robot. Eventually, the dutiful machine must remind his geriatric charge, "I am not a real person" -- a distinction lost on Frank the instant Robot proves to be a natural when it comes to breaking and entering. The rejuvenated cat burglar's face lights up, his body bends to work he loves.
There's a famous photo from Charlie Chaplin's "The Kid" (1921) of the Little Tramp and a game-for-anything waif (Jackie Coogan) ambling off down a country road together. Surely Schreier meant to invoke that iconic father-and-son image from cinema's youth when he frames big man and diminutive Robot similarly sauntering away from the camera, disappearing down a path through lovely, dim woods. Once, Frank wonders why his little boy insists on wearing a space helmet; and indeed as Langella's bullet skull, capped by white fuzz, leans in to practice picking a lock, it's echoed by Robot's round white helmet, a "son" learning his father's trade. It's soon clear that our codger favors Robot over either of his human progeny.
But even as Frank's caretaker becomes his partner in crime -- absurdly buttoned up in an overcoat -- Robot plants a beautiful garden of tomatoes. No insistent symbolism here, just a gently apt contrast between a dead past strewn with the cold fruits of Frank's criminal labors and a now in which the old man might conceivably cultivate a new and nourishing home garden. On one of their practice runs, the odd couple boosts a rare copy of "Don Quixote" from the soon-to-be digitalized library. Tragicomically, Robot has become Sancho Panza to Frank's quixotic septuagenarian.
There's room for mystery here -- slippage between mind and memory, what is and what's desired -- especially given a flurry of late revelations about the true extent of Frank's descent into Alzheimer's. How much of what we see is actuality, how much the heightened product of Frank's quest to relive and rewrite the past? Does Frank imagine Robot's wonderfully "deadpan" sense of humor and apparent filial warmth as he slides into dementia? What's certain is that the ultimate erasure of memory is a mutual sacrifice, ending in a father-son pietà (cue Mozart's "Requiem Mass") as strange and sad as anything in Spielberg's "A.I." That's the way the world of "Robot & Frank" ends, not with a whimper or a bang, but in a father's loving embrace.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.