56th BFI London Film Festival: ‘Robot & Frank’
By Matthew Rodgers On October 17, 2012 @ 4:44 pm In Movies & TV | No Comments
sometime in the near future, this whimsical little fable is assembled using part Wall-E, with a few nuts-n-bolts taken from A.I. and Oceans 11 by way of the retirement home.
Frank (Langella) lives on his own, detached from society, bar the occasional stroll into town for a spot of shoplifting, and is stubbornly unwilling to lose his independence. Visited once a week by his successful son, Hunter (James Marsden), and video-phoned by his globe-trotting, eco-warrior daughter (Liv Tyler), his solitude prompts Hunter to purchase him a robot, one which will provide stimulus to his diet and help around the house. Frank’s reluctance to tolerate a machine he believes will kill him in his sleep, begins to wane when he realises that, with the robot willing to do anything which benefits his health, he’ll teach his new toy how to become a master criminal and relive the glories of days gone by.
If this pitch had been doing the rounds in the 80’s it would have ended up a knockabout comedy featuring James Belushi and a talking tin-can. Instead it’s a beautifully measured tale of friendship, family, and understanding the path that has been laid out for you in life. In the same way that the robot can never emote or care that his memory is wiped, Frank must accept certain inevitabilities about his own life, and it’s the antithesis of both Frank & Robot’s programming, and their journey towards a similar destination, that is the heart of Jake Schreier’s gentle drama.
Anchoring the story is Langella, requisitely gruff in a way that all of these “odd-couple” stories require, but portraying a character for whom the memories may be fading but in which he instils an occasional twinkle of the eye. It’s a performance of effortless warmth. One that is ably supported by Peter Sarsgaard’s voiceover duties; offering little-to-no inflection on the robot’s dialogue, he still manages to bring character to a device when the script is intent on underlining that there is no magic at play here, nothing Disneyfied, it’s a machine, plain and simple. The fact that a charming, tender relationship develops between the two is testament to the script.
The set-up is also brilliant. Establishing a recognisable world flecked with hints of the future; a gentle stroll along a road is interrupted by a micro-car whizzing around the corner, and the library is attended by an antiquated robot, too limited to answer any of Frank’s increasingly frustrated questions.
The film’s flaw is that it never actually veers in the direction you’d wish it would, satisfied as you’ll be with the conclusion, the choice to fill the bulk of the narrative with a cat-burglar crime-spree seems to waste the potential of Franks & Robot’s relationship. The scenes of gardening and walks in the woods are much more successful than those of midnight raids on the local library.
Thankfully, it thrives on its old-fashioned romanticism. An enveloping performance from Langella, delivering some unexpected heft in the closing moments will leave you with a feeling of melancholic optimism.
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