DVD Review - Robot & Frank

Robot & Frank made my personal list of the best movies of 2012. It was in my Top 20. It got such a limited release that not a lot of people were able to see it in theaters. Yet, it is so well-written and so well-acted with great supporting performances that it is a must-see for any one who hasn't.

In 2012, there was a number of smaller and independent films that were tiny human dramas that incorporated sci-fi elements to broaden them. Sound of My Voice and Safety Not Guaranteed are the two examples. Those two examples didn't utilize the sci-fi elements as well as they could. They used the sci-fi elements as hooks or as questions that strung the audience along. Robot & Frank rises above all of those others because the sci-fi elements are more part of the world of this movie.

Oscar-nominee Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) stars as Frank, an old man living alone in the woods of upstate New York. It's somewhere in the near future. It's in fact half-way between now and the reality in I, Robot (2004). Automatons in the shape of humans aren't on the street, walking dogs, but we get the sense that Frank's world is almost there. Yet, Frank is perhaps in his sixties or seventies and he resists at first all the robots as well as the sentiments of most people who don't read books bound on paper.

Oscar-winner Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking) co-stars as Jennifer, the librarian who like Frank enjoys traditional books but she has no problem with the coming technology and the changing culture. She even has a helper robot. It's not any more advanced than a box on wheels. Unlike R2-D2, it can speak, but it's still a box on wheels. She's not afraid of robots as Frank seems to be initially.

James Marsden (X-Men and Hairspray) co-stars as Hunter, Frank's son who brings his father a robot. He never says so, but he worries that Frank might be suffering from Alzheimer's disease. If not, Hunter worries that Frank isn't taking care of himself in general. Hunter brings him a robot that looks like an all-white, between 4 or 5-feet-tall, astronaut or an all-white, Lego man that's meant to be a live-in nurse to monitor Frank's health and make sure he's eating vegetables and exercising.

Peter Sarsgaard (Shattered Glass and Kinsey) voices the robot. At first, Frank is averse to the robot and anyone watching this movie will probably share that aversion. In the past three or four decades of film history, robots have constantly been a source of aversion or outright fear. Either robots or machines with artficial intelligence have always been antagonists to humans, as depicted on film. From Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey to James Cameron's The Terminator, robots as villains are a cliché and the voices of these robots are typically cold and calculating. Sarsgaard's voice is just above that. His voice has a warmth to it, and as the movie goes forward, his voice, mainly through dialogue, develops a personality.

Liv Tyler (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) also co-stars as Madison, Frank's daughter who unlike Hunter feels guilty about her father living alone and her not visiting as much. She travels to the cabin to take over the responsibilities of the robot and be her father's nurse. This probably would have been a good idea, but, Frank, despite his initial resistance, forms a bond with the robot, one that supercedes his familial relationships.

The reason Frank forms this bond is because the robot becomes an unwitting companion in Frank's hobby and that hobby is cat burglary. Frank, in his younger years, was a highly-accomplished thief, a professional thief. He's now retired, but he's still a bit of a kleptomaniac, a pickpocket and shoplifter, almost out of habit or addiction. He sees the robot has no morality outside its prime directive or chief programming, which is to care for Frank's health. Therefore, Frank decides to turn the robot into a robber.

With a very clever script by Christopher Ford and direction by Jake Schreier in his feature-length debut, the movie beautifully melds a story that's like Duncan Jones' Moon (2009) and Nicholas Fackler's Lovely, Still (2010). Schreier also gives Langella such breath to be funny, thrilling and heartbreaking. Schreier also provides moments of such great breath to Marsden, Tyler and Sarandon, Marsden in particular.

You certainly know a film is good when even lesser characters are rendered memorable even when their appearances are so brief. This goes to Ana Gasteyer who plays a shopkeeper whom Frank annoys as well as Jeremy Strong who plays Jake, the new library owner whom annoys Frank, and Jeremy Sisto who plays Rollins, the sheriff who is investigating Frank's crimes.

Robot & Frank won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The Sloan Prize is awarded to a feature film that focuses on science and technology as a theme or depicts a scientist, engineer, or mathematician as a main character. In the end credits, besides having the great song "Fell on Your Head" by Francis and the Lights, the film also has archival footage of real-life robots at work. It makes you realize that the events here are not that far off from the truth. The footage also reinforces ideas that pervades the film, ideas of human dependency on machines, human emotional connection to machines and machines being reflections of ourselves.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 29 mins.


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