Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Robot and Frank

Robot and Frank (2012)

Starring Frank Langella and (the voice of) Peter Sarsgaard

Directed by Jake Schreier

Set in the town of Cold Springs in upstate New York in "the near future'" (I like it when film makers do this instead of putting a particular, often unrealistic date) the story sees aging former cat-burglar Frank leading a solitary life.  Long-divorced after going to prison, his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) is off travelling around the world taking pictures, and his son Hunter (James Marsden) lives 5 hours drive away; his weekly visits to his Father are becoming increasingly frustrating for him as Frank's faculties start to desert him.  In desperation, Hunter buys Frank a robot - the VGC-60L - to act as a butler of sorts, a general medical and domestic assistant.  Initially met with testy resistance by Frank the robot sets about trying to instill a sense of routine and regularity to Frank's life, improve his diet and give him something to occupy his mind.  All Frank wants to do is meander into town where he visits the local library to flirt with the librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) whose library is being modernised and has a robot helper of its own.  His other hobby is petty shoplifting from a store which occupies the site of his former favourite restaurant - items of little or no use to him, such as bars of lavender soap, much to the consternation of the shopkeeper.  But gradually Frank starts to thaw; he reveals that in addition to a 6 year stretch for jewelry theft, he also went down for 10 years for tax evasion.  Eventually he gives in to the robot's insistence that he take on a project of some sort, and his excitement for his former career is re-ignited.  He teaches robot lock-picking, and starts planning a final caper.

To say that this is rather off-beat is putting it mildly.  But virtually every detail is spot on.  Langella is his usual reliable self, turning in a strong, moving performance as the elderly former criminal given a new purpose in life to combat his failing wits, delicately balancing the total control he claims to have, with various degrees of absent mindedness.  The nameless robot is credible in appearance, looking only slightly different from some of the technology around today, with a big dome of a head, a large black visor, and jerky movements.  He's ably and archly voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, joining "2001: A Space Odyssey"'s HAL9000, "I, Robot"'s Sonny and "Moon"'s GERTY in the ranks of great onscreen robotic voices.  The rest of the environment is suitably futurized.  It is recognizably our world but with modest tweaks here and there.  The cars look slightly different everyone uses big-screen videophones.  Robot shows remarkable aptitude for breaking and entering, yet all the while urging caution against actually carrying out a theft.  What starts with a relatively modest theft of a rare copy of "Don Quixote" from the library, intended as a gift for Jennifer, soon escalates into something altogether more serious when Frank sets eyes on the diamonds around the neck of the girlfriend of slimy library "consultant" Jake (Jeremy Strong), scornfully dismissed as "yuppies" by Frank.  He begins, with robot, to "case" their home.  Ripping them off arouses the interest of the local Sheriff Rowlands (Jeremy Sisto)...

The film deals with some weighty issues - love, loss, dementia, crime, family, and the relationship between humans and technology - but does so with a refreshing deftness.  It straddles the boundaries of the disparate genres of drama, humour, science-fiction and crime (even an element of farce towards the climax) with no jarring.  Jake Schreier's direction, from a screenplay by Christopher D. Ford, is unflustered and effective, imbued with a warmth and affection for the characters.  It's amusing, often sharply so, rather than laugh-out-loud funny.  One priceless moment sees Frank emerge from the library to find a gaggle of children hassling robot.  Frank tells him that next time that happens, to "say 'self-destruct sequence initialized, and start counting down from ten"!  Another standout moment sees Frank encourage robot to try starting a conversation with the library robot, aka "Mister D'Arcy".  Watching two robots trying and dismally failing to make small-talk is quite the thing to see.

There is dramatic tension too though, especially when the fiercely anti-robot (or pro-human) Madison arrives unannounced, deactivates robot, and takes on cooking and cleaning duties, much to Frank's intense irritation.  All the while, Frank tries to throw Jake and Rowlands off his tail.  These scenes are entertaining, funny and suspenseful - as we know Frank committed the burglary, but we're not sure what he's done with the loot.  A revelatory scene towards the end of the film between Jennifer and Frank plays out wordlessly, is beautifully acted and emotionally affecting.  The climax, in which robot pays a dear price for the friendship is sad and poignant.  It's worth noting the use of music as well.  The soundtrack sees contemporary synth-pop sitting along side two or three pieces of Mozart, and is particularly suited to what's playing out onscreen.

Overall "Robot and Frank" is a highly unusual but thoroughly engaging, magical little film, coming totally out of leftfield.  An odd mix of genres, telling a unique story, played utterly naturally and therefore believably.  It was clearly a labour of love; IMDB lists the budget at "just" $2,500,000 and the end credits contain more "Thank yous" than probably any other film I've seen.  Do leave the movie running for the end credits, as they play over a compilation of footage of real robots, which suggests that what has gone before isn't quite as far-fetched as we might have believed. Ultimately it's charming, warm and heartfelt, but also melancholic, and will live long in the memory.  It's a shame it wasn't more widely distributed and viewed on its original cinematic release, but that in no way detracts from its quality;  further evidence though, perhaps, of the ever-widening gap which has developed between massively-budgeted blockbusters and "event-films", and ultra-low budget independents.  Full marks to all involved.

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